The Americans' war - At home and overseas
The war that is known around the world as the 'Vietnam War' is referred to in Vietnam as the 'American War'. In this way the conflict between communist forces in South Vietnam and the North Vietnamese Army on one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other, is distinguished from the eight-year-long war against France that ended in 1954 and the five-year-long Japanese occupation during the Second World War. United States military intervention in Vietnam began in 1961, when advisers were sent to South Vietnam to bolster that country's defences against a communist-backed insurgency sponsored by North Vietnam.
Some three million United States personnel served in Vietnam over the ten years of American involvement. American military planners and political leaders – from the wealthiest, most technologically and militarily advanced nation on earth – expected to defeat the communists in Vietnam – a land peopled mainly by rural peasants – with relative ease. But as the war dragged on, and as ever increasing numbers of American soldiers were deployed to Vietnam, it became apparent that the Vietnamese communists were a tougher, more resourceful enemy than had been imagined. Using equipment supplied by the Soviet Union and China, the North Vietnamese Army and the South Vietnamese communists, known as the Viet Cong, were able to frustrate the Americans who were rarely able to draw their opponents into open battle.
Mounting losses and a growing sense that the war was not being won, despite assertions to the contrary by leading political and military figures in the United States, gave strength to anti-war activists in America. When communist forces launched the Tet offensive in February 1968, attacking major centres and infiltrating the American embassy in Saigon, American public opinion turned decisively against the war. The Tet offensive was a military defeat for the Viet Cong, who never recovered from the losses they suffered. However, it was also a propaganda victory from which the United States was unable to recover.
'The Americans' war'
After 1968 the number of Americans in Vietnam decreased year-by-year. Fighting continued; mostly, by now, it was against the North Vietnamese Army. United States aircraft and naval vessels continued to operate against targets in North and South Vietnam, but American ground forces became fewer and fewer, replaced by a growing, but relatively ineffective, South Vietnamese Army.
Communist forces continued to reach South Vietnam from the North despite United States and South Vietnamese attempts to cut off supply routes. In 1970, the American president, Richard Nixon, expanded military operations into neighbouring Laos and Cambodia. Both countries were used as transit routes for North Vietnamese troops and supplies but for their civilian populations the widening conflict brought disaster. Ultimately this attempt to disrupt North Vietnam's efforts in the South failed. Laos fell to communist forces in 1975 as did Cambodia whose population, already torn apart by the war, went on to experience suffering on a scale that horrified the world.
The conflict in Vietnam divided American society and the military alike. In the final period of the war, during the early 1970s, insubordination and drug use were increasingly common among American soldiers in Vietnam. Troops were reportedly refusing to go on patrol or place themselves in dangerous situations. Many were conscripts and none wished to die in a war that, to many, seemed pointless and which was clearly coming to an end.
By the end of 1972, few United States ground troops remained in Vietnam. In January 1973 peace talks that had been taking place in Paris resulted in a ceasefire being agreed to by the United States, North Vietnam and, reluctantly, by South Vietnam. For the Americans this meant 'peace with honour', for the North and South Vietnamese it meant less. The war continued until April 1975 when Saigon fell to a North Vietnamese offensive. Over ten years of United States involvement in the war some 60,000 Americans were killed but the heaviest combat losses were borne by the people of Vietnam, North and South. North Vietnamese estimates put the Vietnamese civilian death toll at 4 million.