Flying Tigers
3rd edition

'I need to know everything about the Vietnam War by Thursday!' (the homework FAQ)

You're writing a paper about Vietnam? Well, you have a problem, because very likely most of what your teacher believes about the Vietnam War is wrong. Not many teachers served in Vietnam, and few of them studied under professors who did. There was a wall between those who served in Vietnam and those who formed public opinion about the war, and for the most part that wall still exists. You'll have to decide for yourself whether you should trim your homework to suit the probable prejudices of your teacher. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford
When was the Vietnam War?
Whose soldiers were fighting there?
How did it come about?
So what was so bad about communists in Vietnam?
How did the United States get involved?
Who were we fighting, exactly?
What was the Gulf of Tokin Incident?
Who were the American soldiers in Vietnam?
What kind of training did they have?
Wasn't it tough, fighting in the jungle?
How many Americans were POWs?

When was the Vietnam War?

Oh gosh, there never was a declaration of war, so it's impossible to put a beginning to it ... and even harder to date the end of it. But
the first American soldier to die in South Vietnam was Captain Harry Cramer on October 21, 1957. And at least four Americans were killed the the day Saigon fell and the South Vietnamese government ceased to exist: April 29, 1975. Those can serve as the outside dates of the war from the point of view of Americans who fought in it. (A few Americans were actually killed by hostile fire in Southeast Asia after the war was over, but that is true of many wars.)

Narrowly defined, the war was considerably shorter. The first American combat unit splashed ashore in South Vietnam on March 8, 1965. That was the U.S. Marines, dispatched to protect the airbase there. Just over eight years later, on March 29, 1973, the last American combat troops left the country. That's the narrow definition of the war: 1965-1973.

The U.S. government, naturally, has its own bureaucratic definition: for the purpose of qualifying for wartime benefits, the "Vietnam era" began on August 5, 1964, and ended on May 7, 1975.

Of course, if you were Vietnamese, you would have an entirely different view of the matter. See below.

Whose soldiers were fighting there?

Well, the Vietnamese, of course. In addition to the United States, with more than 500,000 troops in the country at the height of the war, the following nations sent significant combat forces to South Vietnam: Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea, and the Philippines. There were small contingents (up to 30 men) from Taiwan and Spain, and 34 other nations provided non-combat support. As individuals, many Canadians enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought in Vietnam.

On the communist side, as many as 22,000 Russians served in Vietnam as advisors. Most were air-defense personnel, but 885 were pilots who may well have engaged Americans in combat. One source says that 18 Russians were killed in action. China sent more than 320,000 troops, who mostly filled defense and logistical roles, displacing Vietnamese soldiers who could be sent south. About 1,100 Chinese soldiers lost their lives in Vietnam and 4,200 more were wounded. Smaller contingents from Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Poland also served in some capacity in Vietnam.

How did it come about?

In the years leading up to World War II--fought by "the greatest generation" that everyone now gets soppy about, perhaps because it's an easy way to lay more blame on the generation that planned and fought the Vietnam War--Vietnam was ruled by the French. The colony was known as French Indochina, and it consisted of five smaller colonies:

  • Tonkin (most of what became North Vietnam) centered on the Red River Delta and the capital at Hanoi

  • Cochin-China (most of what became South Vietnam) centered on the Mekong River Delta and the capital at Saigon

  • Annam (the large, narrow, and mostly mountains portion between Tonkin and Cochin-China) with its capital at Hue

  • The present country of Laos, bordering Tonkin and Annam to the west, with its capital at Vientiane

  • The present country of Cambodia, bordering Cochin-China to the west, with its capital at Phnom Penh

    France tried to assimilate its colonies to the home culture, but didn't do a particularly good job of it. The top layer of Indochinese society studied in French schools, many Indochinese worshipped in French Catholic churches, and the opportunists of course did business with the French. As a result, as a French admiral put it, with only a bit of exaggeration: "On our side, we have only Christians and crooks." Much later, the Americans would find themselves in the same position.

    After the Germans occupied France in 1940, the Japanese moved into French Indochina as a base for their war against China. And in December 1941, the Japanese used Indochina to launch its attack on the British colonies of Singapore and Malaya (now called Malaysia).

    President Franklin Roosevelt didn't like the idea of colonial governments in Asia, and he especially disliked the French colonial government of Indochina, which collaborated with the Japanese through most of the war. The U.S. Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency) cooperated instead with the Vietnamese communists under Ho Chi Minh. With their help, Ho declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in August 1945, within days of the Japanese surrender. It was the second communist state in Asia, and the first communist state anywhere not to have a common border with the Soviet Union. (Ho's birth name was Nguyen Sinh Cung. The Vietnamese put the family name first, but almost always call an individual by his given name--the last in the series. Ho is the exception because his chosen name is a political statement--roughly, "Bringer of Light." He was "Uncle Ho" to his followers and, later, to the anti-war movement in the United States.)

    The Only War We've Got

    What was so bad about communists in Vietnam?

    The western Allies handled the liberated Japanese territories in various ways. Their solution for "French Indochina" was to let the Chinese occupy the north, while British Commonwealth troops occupied the south. As colonialists themselves, the British were sympathetic to the French, and it was in Saigon that French "paras" (airborne soldiers), Legionnaires, and civilians evicted Ho's representatives and raised the French flag. In the winter of 1945-46, the French re-established their control over southern Vietnam, and in February 1946 they began to move north. Not one nation had recognized Ho's government, and over time the French army--including the Foreign Legion (postwar, many of its soldiers were German), the Moroccan Legion (black troops from North Africa), and native units with French officers--took control of the north. But, like the Americans after them, they controlled only the roads and the population centers.

    Elsewhere, the country was ruled by the Viet Minh, as Ho's forces were called. (The full name was the Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh, meaning Vietnam Independence League.) The two sides began a long, seesaw battle for control of the countryside. The tide turned against the French in 1949, when the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong defeated the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. Finally Ho Chi Minh shared a border with another communist state.

    Then, in June 1950, communist North Korea invaded pro-western South Korea. The United States sent troops advisers in a successful effort to evict the North Koreans from the south, followed by a disastrously unsuccessful attempt to chase them to the Yalu River--the Chinese border. This brought China into the Korean War, which changed everything in Vietnam as well. The United States began to pay most of the costs of the French effort to crush the Viet Minh. It also sent military aid, including U.S. Air Force transports flown by American civilians to support the French Expeditionary Force.

    When the Korean War ended, huge quantities of captured American military equipment were funneled to the Viet Minh by the Chinese. Some of it was used to defeat the French garrison in 1954 at Dienbienphu, on the Vietnam-Laotian border. After Dienbienphu, France wanted nothing more to do with its long-running disaster in Vietnam. At a peace conference in Geneva, Switzerland, it gave up its "Indochinese" colonies. Cambodia and Laos became independent countries. Vietnam was divided into a communist north under Ho Chi Minh and a pro-western south under the emperor Bao Dai. The promise, never kept, was that the two halves of Vietnam would decide on a common government in 1956. South Vietnam, backed by the United States, reneged on the election because it would inevitably have led to a communist state: Ho could have turned out virtually 100 percent of northern voters, while the vote in the south would have been divided. Instead, a western-style government was established in Saigon under President Ngo Dinh Diem.

    So Vietnam followed the pattern earlier established in Germany and Korea, divided into one half supported by the communist bloc and another supported by the west and especially the United States. About a million northerners "voted with their feet" and relocated to South Vietnam. Many were Catholics who rightly feared for their future under communism, and who in the south became a hard core of support for Diem, himself a Catholic.

    Those of you who know Russia only as a crime-ridden third-world country may have a hard time understanding how powerful it was in the years following World War II, both as a military force and as the home of a communist ideology with wide appeal in the west and in non-aligned countries. Eastern Europe had been occupied and communized by the Soviet Union in 1944-45. China went communist in 1949. The Korean War was fought to a draw in 1950-1953, and the communists successfully won half of Vietnam from the French in 1955. The Soviet Union acquired American nuclear technology, then leapt ahead of the U.S. in heavy-lift missile technology, making a Russian the first man in space. Fidel Castro established a communist state in Cuba, 90 miles off the American coast. The Cold War was a reality, a hot war seemed entirely possible, and American victory in either conflict was by no means certain.

    How did the United States get involved?

    President Dwight Eisenhower was the first to meddle in Vietnam, sending a military mission to help the new South Vietnamese government build an army able to prevent a North Vietnamese invasion across the 17th parallel, Korea-style. The first American soldier killed by hostile action in Vietnam was Captain Harry Cramer, part of a group of U.S. Army Special Forces ("Green Berets") who were training the Vietnamese in guerrilla warfare. At the graduation ceremony on October 21, 1957, communist guerrillas dropped mortar shells on the training site near Nha Trang. Cramer was killed, an American sergeant lost an arm, and there were several Vietnamese casualties as well. Because the United States didn't recognize a combat situation in Vietnam, Cramer's death was officially listed as the result of a accidental explosion, and his name wasn't entered on the Vietnam Wall war memorial until 1983.

    John Kennedy became president in 1961, promising to "pay any price, bear any burden" to defend the free world against communism. He built the American military presence in South Vietnam to 16,000 men (and a few women, mostly nurses). They served as advisers to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, typically a captain and a sergeant with each ARVN battalion of about 500 men. They operated helicopter units in direct support of Vietnamese military operations, and secretly flew armed trainers and World War II bombers on combat operations. And the Green Berets set up "Strike Force" encampments along the Cambodian border to stop the infiltration of soldiers and equipment from North Vietnam.

    The anti-communist war was not going well in 1963, and Kennedy approved a coup in which Diem was murdered by the South Vietnamese generals. Shortly thereafter, Kennedy himself was murdered. These two killings, of all the millions of deaths associated with the Vietnam War, were hugely important in setting the United States and South Vietnam on a course that ended in disaster.

    Kennedy might have stopped there, with an advisory effort, but the new president Lyndon Johnson didn't have that option, or didn't think he did. Rather than betray Kennedy's legacy, Johnson escalated the war in the hope that American pilots and ground troops would be able to accomplish what the South Vietnamese military had not. Following a probably phony attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats on two American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, Johnson ordered "retaliation" strikes against the patrol-boat bases--the first military action against North Vietnam. The U.S. Senate voted a "war powers resolution" with only two dissenting votes. So when you read, as you will, that the great American mistake in Vietnam was waging war without a declaration of war, remember that Lyndon Johnson believed that the Senate had indeed given him "the functional equivalent of a declaration of war," and that it passed with only one less dissenting vote than our declaration of war against Japan in December 1941.

    Shortly thereafter, U.S. Marines were landed to guard an airfield near Danang. And in 1965, the first American combat troops were fighting North Vietnamese regulars on the ground. The U.S. advisory effort had morphed into a war very like the earlier one in Korea, fought mostly by American troops with the help of the local army and a few detachments from friendly nations.

    For more about American thinking when escalation began, see the State Department White Paper on this site.

    Incident at Muc Wa

    Who were we fighting, exactly?

    Here is where your teacher and I are most likely to disagree. The popular view of the Vietnam War is that the Americans were meddling in a civil war between the South Vietnamese government and the National Liberation Front. Heck, you can read entire history books in which "the Front" is the only enemy mentioned, at least until sympathetic North Vietnamese traveled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to give the "people's forces" a helping hand. But this isn't the way the war developed at all.

    Ho Chi Minh TrailWhen the country was divided in 1955, about 100,000 Viet Minh guerrillas who had been fighting in the south were repatriated to the north. Others greased and buried their weapons and returned to civilian life. Very early, however, they began to operate against the South Vietnamese government much as they had previously operated against the French, murdering landlords and village officials, levying taxes on the peasants, and recruiting new soldiers. They were aided by the former southern guerrillas who had gone north, been rested and retrained, and then sent down the jungle route that would become famous as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (Basically, the route began in North Vietnam, moved west into Laos and south through Laos and Cambodia, before moving east again into South Vietnam, neatly bypassing the ARVN divisions stationed at the 17th Parallel to deter the expected invasion.)

    The rebellion became official in October 1957, when the communists in the south--in obedience to instructions from North Vietnam--organized themselves into 37 armed companies. The South Vietnamese government looked upon them as bandits, and regarded their suppression as a job for the police.

    Obviously the new force couldn't be called Viet Minh, because the vast majority of Vietnamese regarded the Viet Minh as the army that had liberated their country from the French (and Ho Chi Minh as the George Washington figure of the Vietnamese revolution). So a new name was coined: Viet Cong, meaning Vietnamese communist. By whatever name, the military force was well established by the time the National Liberation Front was formed in December 1960. And the NLF was never more than that--a front for the actual managers of the insurrection, who were Ho Chi Minh and his chief of staff, General Vo Nguyen Giap. Make no mistake: the rebellion in the south was conceived, supported, and directed from North Vietnam. The southerners and the northerners didn't always agree on tactics, but they had the same aim: to overthrow the Saigon government and unite the northern and southern halves of the country.

    At first, the assistance consisted of former Viet Minh guerrillas, returning to the south, along with Chinese copies of the Russian AK-47 assault rifle. (It was still true, however, that most Viet Cong weapons were captured from the government forces, especially heavy weapons such as machine guns and mortars.) In 1964, the first North Vietnamese regulars came down the Ho Chi Minh Trail--about 10,000 troops that year. Meanwhile, the "trail" was upgraded to a modern supply line with hardened roads and bridges that could handle heavy trucks. The trail was protected by anti-aircraft guns, and underground workshops, barracks, hospitals, and gasoline depots were built at regular intervals. These not only supported the convoys coming down the trail, but also provided a safe fall-back for the troops operating in South Vietnam.

    What was the Gulf of Tokin Incident?

    1964 was the year when everything changed in South Vietnam. Even as North Vietnam began to send its army south, President Johnson began to "Americanize" the war. He appointed his highest military official, General Maxwell Taylor, as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. The actual dispatch of American ground troops would have to wait until after the November elections, which Johnson hoped to win by a huge margin in order to legitimize his presidency, which up to now had operated in the shadow of the martyred Kennedy. Meanwhile, the administration drew up a list of targets in North Vietnam that would be bombed unless Ho Chi Minh removed his forces from the south. (The North Vietnamese knew this, since they were warned; the American people did not.) However, Johnson didn't want to send warplanes over North Vietnam without Congressional approval, so he also drew up a resolution for Congress to pass. All that was lacking was an excuse to present that resolution to Congress.

    That summer, South Vietnamese commandos in fast gunboats raided the northern coast under the protection of U.S. warships stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin. They included the destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy, which on August 3 baited the North Vietnamese by making runs toward the shore. That night the two destroyers may or may not have been attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats, which in any event inflicted no damage. The American response had already been scripted: U.S. Navy jets rose from the carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation and bombed the North Vietnamese patrol-boat bases.

    The war-powers resolution was immediately presented to the U.S. Senate, which passed it with only two dissenting votes. Pausing only to win a landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in November (the landslide was in part attributable to fears that Goldwater would get us into war!), President Johnson continued to follow the script that was on his desk. He authorized routine bombing of North Vietnam, sent U.S. Marines to guard an airfield at Danang, and--the fatal step--committed the U.S. Army to fight the Viet Cong on the ground. For their part, North Vietnamese troops entered combat alongside the Viet Cong. One year after I left Saigon, the "airmobile" U.S. 1st Cavalry Division was battling three North Vietnamese divisions in the Ia Drang Valley, and what I had known as a counter-insurgency had become something very like a conventional war, though one without a front or "main line of resistance."

    Historians are still debating whether the attack on the U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin was real, imagined, or invented after the fact. Most likely it was a combination of the first two, but it scarcely matters. In the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August, President Johnson had succeeded in tricking the Congress into giving him a blank check to prosecute the war as he saw fit. And with his electoral landslide in November, he could claim another blank check, this one from the American people who had given him a landslide victory.

    If the U.S. had been content to continue its advisory role, the South Vietnamese government would probably have collapsed within a year or two. (Though this wasn't obvious to those of us who were in Vietnam at the time.) But that collapse would have been a defeat only for the South Vietnamese army and government. Once American combat units were deployed, that was no longer true. With the events of 1964, the United States had committed itself to fight what was then the longest war in its history, and what is still the third most deadly, with the toll of American dead exceeded only by the Civil War and World War II.

    Michael's War

    Who were the American soldiers in Vietnam?

    The popular image of Vietnam is that the war was fought by poor black teenagers. In fact, the demographic profile of the American fighting man in Vietnam was not much different from his brothers-in-arms in other wars, with due allowance for the changing times.

    Note that the overwhelming majority of Americans who served in Vietnam were not combat soldiers. (The "tooth to tail" or "ass to grass" ratio is often estimated as 1 to 10.) The only sound measurement of who was in harm's way is to take the deaths--and even here the measurement isn't exact, since young, black, and working-class soldiers are probably more likely to die in non-combat accidents than those who are older, white, and from middle-class backgrounds. With those caveats, here are the figures:

  • Race: Of the Americans who died in Vietnam, 86.1 percent were white, 12.5 percent were black, and 1.4 percent were Asian / Native American / unknown. (The military didn't track Hispanics in the 1960s. Some would have been recorded as black, a few as American Indian, and the majority as white.)

  • Age: Of the Americans who died in Vietnam, 18.3 percent were 17-19 years old, 38.5% were 21-22 years, 18.9 percent were 23-24 years, 14.3 percent were 25-29 years, and 10.0 percent were 30 years or older.

  • Education: No exact breakdown exists. Of enlisted men in Vietnam, about 63 percent were high-school graduates, 10 percent had attended college, and less than 1 percent were college graduates. On the other hand, most officers were college graduates and almost all had attended college for a year or more. As a rough estimate, something like 70 percent of the Americans in harm's way in Vietnam had graduated from high school, 28 percent had attended college, and 19 percent had graduated from college.

    In short, the typical American combat soldier in the Vietnam War was a white high-school graduate in his early twenties.

    What kind of training did American soldiers have?

    One of my correspondents asked this question, and she proved quite unable to understand my answers. I realized that young people who have never been in the military don't have any conception of how it works, so I wrote her a long letter explaining my own basic training at Fort Dix in 1956. This was ten years before Vietnam hotted up, but I don't think that things had changed much, with the exception of the rifle and rifle grenade that I used. See it at basic training.

    Wasn't it tough, fighting in the jungle?

    On a moderated Vietnam newsgroup, a veteran who signed himself Dino posted this view of wilderness combat in South Vietnam, which matches my own experience:

    "For those who have never been in a tropical jungle they look impenetrable from the outside. Jungle is nothing more than forest. I live in Florida and we call small and large forests, hammocks or bayheads. A cypress bayhead looks impenetrable from the outside and in a way that's true. They are very difficult to get inside because they are surrounded by brush and small trees and vines, but once inside it is relatively easy to walk around. The same is true with mangroves. I've read in books where mangrove forests are impenetrable, yet I have walked through untold miles of mangrove forests.

    "In Vietnam there were many types of forests. The ones called triple canopy were the best to walk through. I loved walking through triple canopy forests because the lack of sunlight prevented undergrowth to a large extent. Some types of vegetation such as ferns like to grow without direct sunlight but normally the triple canopy forest was a pleasure to walk through and relatively free of brush. It was also cooler there.

    "Even some Vietnam vets have the mistaken belief that one had to hack their way though a triple canopy jungle with machetes. This simply is not true. There were areas where vines and other vegetation were too thick to walk through but these were areas void of the large trees which blocked sunlight.

    "The term 'triple canopy' is overused. Much of the forests in Vietnam were not triple canopy; they were forests with trees of relatively the same height with small and large open areas. This type of varied forest was difficult to walk through. Mostly we walked on the trails made by the VC and NVA. This was dangerous but often those trails led us to hidden sites."

    How many Americans were POWs?

    794 Americans are known to have been prisoners of the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese, or their allied forces in Southeast Asia.

    Of that number, 687 were released at one time or another, most of them in Operation Homecoming in the spring of 1973. Another 36 escaped, and 71 died in captivity, the majority in South Vietnam.

    However, many thousands of Americans are listed as "missing in action" in Vietnam (the same is true of earlier conflicts). Most were killed under circumstances that made it impossible to recover their bodies or otherwise confirm their identity. Probably some were prisoners who died in captivity. Perhaps a few were held against their will after Operation Homecoming and the 1975 fall of the South Vietnamese government. It is even possible, though extremely unlikely, that a few American servicemen are still alive in Southeast Asia or even in Russia.

    Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

    A Vision So Noble
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