Case Study: Vietnam
How was a small country like Vietnam
able to win a war
against the USA?
Essay Question
This section includes:
• Background
• 1957 to 1965 – Struggle in Vietnam between the
South Vietnamese army and the communist-trained
rebels (Viet Cong)
• 1965 to 1969 – North Vietnamese-USA struggle
• The war from the Vietnamese and USA perspective
• The war as a world issue
• 1969 to 1975 – USA withdrawal from Vietnam
• Conclusion: How the war is remembered today
(Refer to CAPS, p26)
Where in the World is Vietnam?
• In the 19th century France
colonised a large part of SE
Asia including modern day
• 1941: Japan invaded and
occupied SE Asia.
• 1941: Two communists /
Vietnamese nationalists (Ho
Chi Minh and Nguyen Vo Giap)
set up Viet Minh (League for
the Independence of Vietnam)
• Viet Minh funded by the US.
Post-War Settlement 1945-1954
• 1945: Japan was defeated in
WWII, withdrew from SE Asia
• September 1945 Ho Chi Minh
announced Vietnam was an
independent and democratic
• The French attempted to reestablish their empire and
took back control of the south
• Vietminh continued to fight
for full independence and a
united Vietnam
• 1954 French surrendered
The Geneva Agreement
In May 1954, Britain, France, China, the
Soviet Union, the USA and Vietnam met in
Geneva to decide the future of Vietnam
1954-1965 struggle between South Vietnamese army
and communist trained rebels (NFL / Viet Cong)
• 1955 Diem (supported by
USA) officially elected
president of South
Vietnam in rigged elections
• Diem was a dictator. He
was a Catholic and
persecuted the Buddhist
majority. Land was taken
from peasants and given to
Diem’s supporters
• Diem refused to allow
elections to re-unite North
and South Vietnam.
Opposition to Diem’s Government
• 1959: Vietminh supporters
in South Vietnam formed
the National Liberation
Front (NFL) Diem and USA
called them ‘Viet Cong’
(Vietnamese Communists)
• 1963: an elderly monk
named Thich Quang Duc,
set himself ablaze in protest
against Diem’s corrupt
regime .
• 1963: a CIA funded coup in
South Vietnam which
overthrew and killed Diem.
Malcolm Brown who took this photograph
Why did America become
involved in a war in Vietnam?
American Presidents during the period of US
involvement in Vietnam:
Dwight D Eisenhower (Rep): 1953- 1961
John F. Kennedy (Dem): 1961-1963
Lyndon B Johnson (Dem): 1963-1969
Richard Nixon (Rep): 1969- 1974
The ‘Domino Effect’
(Strategic importance of Vietnam)
In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong won their civil war
and established a communist government. USA feared that other countries in
the region would fall to communism unless the USA actively prevented it.
Gulf of Tonkin Incident (Trigger)
• On 2 August 1964 the US destroyer Maddox
was fired at by North Vietnamese patrol boats
in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Maddox was
gathering intelligence information. Two days
later there was a second alleged attack.
Evidence has since shown that this did not
happen. US President Johnson used these
attacks to persuade Congress to support
greater US involvement in Vietnam.
• 1965 – by end of year 200,000 US combat
soldiers had been sent to Vietnam.
1965 - 1969: North Vietnamese-USA struggle
USA’s Tactics
• 7 Feb 1965: USA launched
‘Operation Rolling Thunder’:
- Widespread aerial bombing
using cluster bombs and
Chemical weapons (‘Agent
Orange’ and Napalm used)
• Search and Destroy (used
airmobility to move troops)
• 16 March 1968: My Lai
• Defence of South Vietnamese
government against North
Vietnamese expansion.
North Vietnamese Tactics
• Winning South Vietnam
hearts and minds
• Guerrilla tactics
• Booby traps and mines
• Suicide squad fought their
way into US embassy
• 31 January 1968 Vietcong
launched an attack on over
100 towns and cities in the
south during New Year (or
Tet) holiday – (Turning point:
US public realised that US was
NOT winning the war!)
1969 to 1975 – USA withdrawal from Vietnam
“From 1964-1972, the wealthiest and most
powerful nation in the history of the world
made a maximum military effort, with
everything short of atomic bombs, to defeat a
nationalist revolutionary movement in a tiny
peasant country – and failed”.
(H. Zinn, A People’s History of the USA, (New York, 1980, p460)
A Soviet
mocking the
large number
of US casualties
in Vietnam.
c. 1968
Deforestation caused by USA spraying
Agent Orange (TCDD Dioxin)
The Vietnamese Red Cross
estimates that up to three
million Vietnamese have
suffered health effects from
dioxin exposure, of whom
150,000 are children with birth
Ten year old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked
down a street having torn off her burning clothes
after an American Napalm attack.
The Massacre at
My Lai 16 March 1968
We huddled the villagers up.
Women and children shot dead by American soldiers lie
We made them squat down. I poured about four clips into the group.
the road
the village
of My Lai, 1968.
their children.
While we kept on firing .
(An extract from the evidence of Paul Meadlo who was a US soldier at My Lai.)
Conscripted Soldiers: ‘Cherries’
• Of the 3 million
Americans involved in
Vietnam war – about
two-thirds were
conscripts (‘cherries’)
• Average age of
conscript = 19 years
• 12 month – ‘tour of
• Anti-conscription
campaign in USA
A student burns his draft card during an
anti-war demonstration. Over 200,000
young men dodged the draft.
Kent State Massacre (4 May 1970)
National Guardsmen opened fire
on student protestors in Ohio,
killing four. This picture shows one
of the dead students,
Jeffrey Miller.
Casualties of War
Year Range
North Vietnamese
civilian deaths from
North Vietnamese
soldiers killed
Viet Cong deaths
Viet Cong and North
Vietnamese soldiers
deaths combined
South Vietnamese
civilian deaths from
gunfire / bombing
South Vietnamese
soldiers killed
US military deaths
Source: Rudolph Rummel, Statistics of Vietnamese Democide: Estimates, Calculations and Sources, 1997.
Why did the USA lose the Vietnam War?
US Army’s military tactics - ineffective and unpopular
Growth of the anti-war movement in USA.
Media coverage of the war – 1st TV war
Unpopularity of South Vietnamese Government
North Vietnamese soldiers’ Guerrilla warfare tactics
North Vietnam and NLA were fighting a war of
liberation to free their country from foreign
• Support for North Vietnamese from China and USSR
How has the Vietnam War been
• Memorials in USA and Vietnam
• Film (Hollywood has presented different views
of war in different periods)
• Music
• Personal accounts / Auto-biographies
• Academic histories
• Tourist sites
Impact of Vietnam War
• For Vietnam – Horrific: 5 Million Vietnamese
peasants displaced, Large numbers killed, or
maimed. Huge areas of forest destroyed by
American chemicals – long term implications for
• For America - A major psychological as well as
military defeat. Probably sped up the ‘Domino
effect’ ie lots of other countries in Asia ‘went red’
(ie became communist) A propaganda disaster
(US troops involved in human rights violations,
massacres, use of chemical weapons)
Audio-Visual Resources
BBC – News coverage of Vietnam War
Anti- Vietnam war songs

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