August 7th: The US goes to war in Vietnam


Battle of Ia Drang Valley during The Tet Offensive.

The Vietnam War was fought between 1955 and 1975 in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It began after the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam, or DRV), and the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (the Viet Cong) united, and tried to impose a communist system over the whole of Vietnam. This move was fiercely opposed by the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam, or RVN), who had the backing of the strongly anti-communist United States.

The U.S. government firmly believed communism to be evil; ‘A Red Menace.’ They also believed in the ‘domino theory’, which stated that if one country in Asia became communist then others in the region would follow – something they were determined to prevent. Led by senator Joseph McCarthy, the American people were encouraged to have an almost hysterical distrust of communism, and there was little surprise when the government started sending an increasing number of military advisers to the aid of fellow capitalists South Vietnam.

On 7th August 1964, the USA raised the level of their support for Southern Vietnam from advisory to military. Their war campaign began with the ‘Gulf of Tonkin’ incident, when a U.S. destroyer clashed with North Vietnamese fast attack craft. This led to the ‘Gulf of Tonkin Resolution’, which gave the U.S. President authorisation to increase the American military presence in the area. In 1965, regular U.S. combat units were deployed across the bordering regions of Laos and Cambodia, countries which they would continuously and heavily bombard for some years thereafter.

In 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communists launched a large scale attack to overthrow the South Vietnamese government, known as “The Tet Offensive”. The Americans increased their involvement in the war at the same time, though, and as a result ultimately the offensive failed.

However, the costly, shocking nature of the Tet would prove the turning point of the war, in favour of the communists, as it persuaded many American citizens that its government’s claims of progress toward winning the whole war were unrealistic, despite all the many years of massive military aid they had given to South Vietnam. Tet was a military victory for the US, but a propaganda disaster.

A gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops began soon after the Tet’s conclusion, as the population of America became more and more disillusioned with their part in the war. It led to a policy of ‘Vietnamisation’, which aimed to transfer the task of fighting the Communists to the South Vietnamese themselves.

It wasn’t until 15th August 1973, however, that direct U.S. military involvement ended. And the Vietnam War itself didn’t end until the fall of Saigon, captured by the North Vietnamese Army in April 1975, which resulted in the reunification of Vietnam the following year.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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