Vietnam As We Saw It Lesson Five
The Vietnam War represented a clash of cultures, not just armies. During the war much of that traditional society remained in place, but with the influx of US soldiers, the American presence began to affect South Vietnam’s cities in major ways. This “culture clash,” and a lack of real understanding between the US and the South Vietnamese, may well have contributed to South Vietnam’s defeat. The “Americanization” of the war after 1965 stressed US power and body counts; it downplayed efforts to bring security to the countryside or to win the “hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese villagers. Beginning in late 1968 that strategy changed.
In July 1968, General Creighton Abrams replaced William Westmoreland as commander of US forces in Vietnam. Public opinion was turning against the war. No new increases in US troops would be make. In fact, from this point on, the number of US troops would be reduced. The new policy was “Vietnamization”. Its aim was to create a strong, self-reliant South Vietnamese army while working for a political system the south Vietnamese would support. US leaders had high hopes that South Vietnam’s new president, Nguyen Van Thieu, could achieve this.
As for US forces, Abrams emphasized “pacification”, or the protecting of the villages of South Vietnam. The use of massive US air power actually increased, but the the basic goal was to give the South Vietnamese the time and back-up support they needed to take over the job of their defense.
These girls are volunteers of the People’s Self-Defense Force (PSDF) of a hamlet called KienDien, located north of Saigon. The PSDF, along with the Regional Forces and the Popular Forces, were increasingly important in South Vietnam’s effort to defend its villages against the communists. By 1970, the PSDF had more than 1,300,000 men and women in the combat wing of their force, along with 1,750,000 women, children and elderly men in the support wing. These forces were vital to the pacification part of Vietnamization, a strategy now being pursued strongly by Abrams and the new US president, Richard Nixon.
Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, promising “an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.” He claimed to have a “secret plan” to end the war. Vietnamization was a part of that plan. Nixon also stepped up the air war, especially against sanctuaries and supply lines in Cambodia and Laos. He was a strong anti-communist, but the failure to win in Vietnam led him to rethink the approach to the Cold War. Nixon soon opened talks with the Soviet Union and China. He is shown here on his historic visit to China in 1972. Nixon hoped that friendlier dealings with China and the Soviet Union would lead them to pressure North Vietnam to settle the war through peace talks.
Protests against the war did not subside after Nixon’s election. In part, that was because he actually increased the bombing as he began to bring US troops home. In the spring of 1970, he sent soldiers into Cambodia to pursue North Vietnamese troops using that country as a safe haven. This action was met with the largest protests of the war to date.
In May, four student protestors at Kent State University in Ohio were killed and nine others were wounded when National Guard troops opened fire on them. Click on the photo to read more.
Peace talks actually began during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. Under Nixon, the chief US negotiator was National Security advisor Henry Kissinger, on the left in the photo. His North Vietnamese counterpart was Le Duc Thou, on the right. North Vietnam insisted the US withdraw all its forces, while the US demanded that the North move its troops back across the border. Both sides refused and talks stalled. In the Spring of 1972, with only about 6,000 US troops left in Vietnam, North Vietnam mounted a massive invasion of the South, known as the Easter Uprising. In response, Nixon ordered the first sustained bombing of North Vietnam since 1969. The US also mined Haiphong Harbor. This brought North Vietnam back to the talks. In January 1973, a cease-fire was finally signed. Among other things, it called for the withdrawal of all US forces.
In March 1973, the last American troops left Vietnam. The situation quickly deteriorated. Congress soon voted to deny any more funds to South Vietnam. Within less than two years, the North mounted its final invasion. This time, there was little the US could do. Over a million South Vietnamese who had supported the US fled for their lives. Many took to the sea in rickety boats. The US took in hundreds of thousands of these “boat people.”
The Vietnam war continues to haunt our memory. As with other wars, the way we remember this one is shaped powerfully by certain famous images of it. Among the most famous is a photo of a young Vietnamese girl fleeing napalm bombs in 1972. The girl is Kim Phuc, and she is shown here on the right as an adult holding that famous photo.
The photo made Kim Phuc a symbol of war’s inhumanity. For many, it also became a symbol of US brutality. Yet the truth about the photos such as this is often far more complex. No US forces were actually engaged in the destruction of her village. And today, Kim Phuc herself is living in Canada as yet another refugee from North Vietnam’s totalitarian regime. Another emotional issue of the Vietnam War are the reports of captured US soldiers not returned at the end of the war. Click on the flag to read more.
Today an entire generation of Americans with no first-hand memory of the war has grown up. Yet the war still affects even the youngest of us in ways we may not always recognize. This photo from April 2000 shows a young girl placing a flower at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. Click the photo for an “in depth” look at the Wall. Vietnam veterans are often seen at the “Wall,” as it is known. For these veterans, the memory of the war is still painful. Many often search the Wall for the names of friends and fellow warriors who never came home.
In 1995, the US reestablished diplomatic ties with communist Vietnam. In official terms, it seemed as if the war had finally ended. But for millions of Americans, strong emotions about the war remain. And painful questions about it will continue to be debated for years to come.
Selected Bibliography The Way We Saw It—Vietnam: Our Longest War, parts 1 and 2. Highsmith, Inc.: Fort Atkinson, WI, 2001. www.lawrence.edu/library/archives/timetrad/protest2.jpg