This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)

Over a period spanning 30 years of conflict, the Vietnam War caused the death of approximately 3 million people, including Vietnamese soldiers, civilians and foreign military. Historically, the war is perceived as one of the deadliest conflicts of the 20thcentury; the engagement between the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese, supported by American military power, saw new methods of warfare introduced, and had considerable consequences on the Vietnamese people. It is a crucial example of how foreign intervention can result in increased divisions and a considerable extension of a conflict. The American involvement in the war was implicit in the continued divisions and loss of life in the period, and for this reason, the Vietnam War must be considered as an extension of the Cold War tensions that were present in the period.

Whilst official American involvement in the war did not begin until 1955, the beginning of the Vietnamese conflict can be seen in the Japanese invasion of Vietnam in September of 1940. This followed a pattern of colonial interventions that were seen across the globe, and specifically allowed for the increased power of the Communist forces within the country, due to the success of the Viet Cong in opposing Japanese presence. This event saw increased tensions between the French and Japanese over Vietnam as a territory, signifying its nature as a colonial prize, with strong economic motives and competition against the Chinese as implicit within its appeal. In this period, colonial motivations were incredibly prevalent, however from 1945 onwards, the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam by Ho Chi Minh emphasises the effect that Communism had over the politics of the country. From this point, the Vietnam conflict represented a cold war.

On the 12thof March 1947, President Truman delivered a speech to the American Congress declaring that the US would intervene overseas to prevent the continued spread of communism. This signified the increasing tensions between the US and the USSR and, more specifically, the increasing tensions between the two ideologies of capitalism and communism. The speech introduced the promise of intervening on behalf of a country threatened by foreign invasion; however, the Vietnam War saw America intervening in domestic issues, and altering the conflict to one which fulfilled American cold war goals.

Considering this, when active involvement in Vietnam began in 1954, the aim of President Eisenhower in introducing country-wide elections to establish democracy in Vietnam must be viewed in the context of preventing Communist authority in all aspects. This involvement was irrevocably worsened in 1963 with the military coup and the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, in which the US was complicit. The coup against Diem’s government, regardless of the unpopularity of the leadership amongst the Vietnamese people and Buddhist groups, tied America into the Vietnamese conflict as major contributors. From this point onwards, the US was inarguably connected to events in Vietnam, and this involvement only increased in the later periods. 

Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức protesting against the Diem regime through self-immolation

The Vietnam War saw the deaths of approximately 58,000 US, 1.1 million North Vietnamese, and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers. These deaths were brought about through numerous conflicts, the use of guerrilla warfare tactics, and bombing campaigns such as ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’. This was a culmination of decades of cold war tensions which spanned the globe. However, around half of the overall death toll was taken up by Vietnamese civilians. The ‘My Lai Massacre’ of 1968 saw the slaughter of over 400 unarmed civilians in a Vietnamese village, due to the apparent belief that the civilians were hiding Viet Cong supporters and weapons. The massacre is a representative of the ways in which colonial ideology had permeated individuals, emphasising how concepts of superiority was present in all military decisions that the American army took in this conflict, emphasising the loss of the apparent humanitarian and democratic aims of involvement.

Throughout the US, the Vietnam War became a source of considerable tension, emphasised in the numerous protests which took place in the years 1968-1970. This opposition to the war led Richard Nixon to declare a policy of ‘Vietnamization’ and announce the removal of American soldiers from the conflict, replacing them with Southern Vietnamese citizens. This represented a structured attempt at reducing American casualties and therefore an attempt at pushing a civil war platform in the country. President Nixon’s policy failed, and the South could not uphold against the North Vietnamese military. However, this did not prevent his government from negotiating an unstable peace agreement with the North Vietnamese and removing the American troops from Vietnam. This allowed the NVA to enter the South and capture Saigon in 1975, effectively uniting the country under Communist authority. 

President Richard Nixon Vietnamizes the Vietnam War

The conclusion of the war, in many ways reflects the extent to which the conflict was cold war based. Despite the attempts to present it as a civil war, the nature of the South Vietnamese forces was based around an American attempt to prevent the spread of communism in Asia and follow their ‘Domino Theory’ policy. Whilst the conflict began before the Americans intervened in Vietnam, the involvement of foreign forces is inarguably the cause of the millions of deaths that occurred. It was up to the Vietnamese people to reunite their country in the aftermath of such violence, many of the effects of which are still being felt  today.