Howard Zinn's short history of the war in Vietnam from the beginning of the Communist insurgency in 1957 until the defeat of US and South Vietnamese forces in 1975.
Following the partitioning of Vietnam into the pro-independence Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North, and the US puppet state the Republic of Vietnam in the South in 1954 (see our short history of Vietnam from 1945 to 1957) elections were due to be held on re-unification. South Vietnam repeatedly blocked the elections to prevent the inevitable Communist victory.
A Communist insurgency erupted in 1957, which was largely kept under control until 1963 when the pro-independence Viet Cong inflicted a large defeat on South Vietnamese forces at the Battle of Ap Bac and full-scale war began to break out. The USSR and China were funding the Viet Cong while the US channelled funds to the South, and in 1965 the US sent combat troops to the region.
Historian Howard Zinn describes the conflict from that point on:
During 1965, over 200,000 American soldiers were sent to South Vietnam, and in 1966, 200,000 more. By early 1968, there were more than 500,000 American troops there, and the US Air Force was dropping bombs at a rate unequalled in history. Tiny glimmerings of the massive human suffering under this bombardment came to the outside world. On June 5, 1965, the New York Times carried a dispatch from Saigon:
As the Communists withdrew from Quangngai last Monday, United States jet bombers pounded the hills into which they were headed. Many Vietnamese - one estimate as high as 500 - were killed by the strikes. The American contention is that they were Vietcong soldiers. But three out of four patients seeking treatment in a Vietnamese hospital afterward for burns from napalm, or jellied gasoline, were village women.
On September 6, another press dispatch from Saigon:
"In Bien Hoa province south of Saigon on August 15 United States aircraft accidentally bombed a Buddhist pagoda and a Catholic church… it was the third time their pagoda had been bombed in 1965. A temple of the Cao Dai religious sect in the same area had been bombed twice this year. In another delta province there is a woman who has both arms burned off by napalm and her eyelids so badly burned that she cannot close them. When it is time for her to sleep her family puts a blanket over her head. The woman had two of her children killed in the air strike that maimed her."
Few Americans appreciate what their nation is doing to South Vietnam with airpower... innocent civilians are dying every day in South Vietnam.
Large areas of South Vietnam were declared "free fire zones," which meant that all persons remaining within them-civilians, old people, children-were considered an enemy, and bombs were dropped at will. Villages suspected of harbouring Viet Cong were subject to "search and destroy" missions - men of military age in the villages were killed, the homes were burned, the women, children, and old people were sent off to refugee camps. Jonathan Schell, in his book The Village of Ben Suc, describes such an operation: "a village surrounded, attacked, a man riding on a bicycle shot down, three people picnicking by the river shot to death, the houses destroyed, the women, children, old people herded together, taken away from their ancestral homes."
The CIA in Vietnam, in a program called "Operation Phoenix," secretly, without trial, executed at least 20,000 civilians in South Vietnam who were suspected of being members of the Communist underground. A pro-administration analyst wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs in January 1975: "Although the Phoenix program did undoubtedly kill or incarcerate many innocent civilians, it did also eliminate many members of the Communist infrastructure."
After the war, the release of records of the International Red Cross showed that in South Vietnamese prison camps, where at the height of the war 65,000 to 70,000 people were held and often beaten and tortured, American advisers observed and sometimes participated. The Red Cross observers found continuing, systematic brutality at the two principal Vietnamese POW camps-at Phu Quoc and Qui Nhon, where American advisers were stationed.
By the end of the war, 7 million tons of bombs had been dropped on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia - more than twice the amount of bombs dropped on Europe and Asia in World War II. In addition, poisonous sprays were dropped by planes to destroy trees and any kind of growth - an area the size of the state of Massachusetts was covered with such poison. Vietnamese mothers reported birth defects in their children. Yale biologists, using the same poison (2,4,5,T) on mice, reported defective mice born and said they had no reason to believe the effect on humans was different.
More details of atrocities started to slowly leak out, such as that of the My Lai massacre in which nearly 500 men, women and childred were methodically shot to death in a ditch. Sadly, My Lai was unique only in its details. Journalist Seymour Hersh reported a letter sent by a GI to his family, and published in a local newspaper:
"Dear Mom and Dad:
Today we went on a mission and I am not very proud of myself, my friends, or my country. We burned every hut in sight!
It was a small rural network of villages and the people were incredibly poor. My unit burned and plundered their meagre possessions. Let me try to explain the situation to you.
The huts here are thatched palm leaves. Each one has a dried mud bunker inside. These bunkers are to protect the families. Kind of like air raid shelters.
My unit commanders, however, chose to think that these bunkers are offensive. So every hut we find that has a bunker we are ordered to burn to the ground.
When the ten helicopters landed this morning, in the midst of these huts, and six men jumped out of each "chopper", we were firing the moment we hit the ground. We fired into all the huts we could....
It is then that we burned these huts.... Everyone is crying, begging and praying that we don't separate them and take their husbands and fathers, sons and grandfathers. The women wail and moan.
Then they watch in terror as we burn their homes, personal possessions and food. Yes, we burn all rice and shoot all livestock."
The massacre at My Lai by a company of ordinary soldiers was a small event compared with the plans of high-level military and civilian leaders to visit massive destruction on the civilian population of Vietnam. Assistant Secretary of Defence John McNaughton in early 1966, seeing that large-scale bombing of North Vietnam villages was not producing the desired result, suggested a different strategy. The air strikes on villages, he said, would "create a counterproductive wave of revulsion abroad and at home." He suggested instead:
Destruction of locks and dams, however-if handled right-might . . . offer promise. It should be studied. Such destruction doesn't kill or drown people. By shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after a time to widespread starvation (more than a million?) unless food is provided-which we could offer to do "at the conference table." . . .
The heavy bombings were intended to destroy the will of ordinary Vietnamese to resist, as in the bombings of German and Japanese population centres in World War II - despite President Johnson's public insistence that only "military targets" were being bombed. The government was using language like "one more turn of the screw" to describe bombing. The CIA at one point in 1966 recommended a "bombing program of greater intensity," according to the Pentagon Papers, directed against, in the ClA's words, "the will of the regime as a target system."
By early 1968, the cruelty of the war began touching the conscience of many Americans. For many others, the problem was that the United States was unable to win the war, while 40,000 American soldiers were dead by this time, 250,000 wounded, with no end in sight. (The Vietnam casualties were many times this number.) A movement of resistance to the war had also started to develop amongst American GIs that would bring the US war machine almost to a halt.
Lyndon Johnson had escalated a brutal war and failed to win it. His popularity was at an all-time low; he could not appear publicly without a demonstration against him and the war. The chant "LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" was heard in demonstrations throughout the country. In the spring of 1968 Johnson announced he would not run again for President, and that negotiations for peace would begin with the Vietnamese in Paris.
In the autumn of 1968, Richard Nixon, pledging that he would get the United States out of Vietnam, was elected President. He began to withdraw troops; by February 1972, less than 150,000 were left. But the bombing continued. Nixon's policy was "Vietnamisation" - the Saigon government, with Vietnamese ground troops, using American money and air power, would carry on the war. Nixon was not ending the war; he was ending the most unpopular aspect of it, the involvement of American soldiers on the soil of a faraway country.
In the spring of 1970, Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger launched an invasion of Cambodia, after a long bombardment that the government never disclosed to the public. The invasion not only led to an outcry of protest in the United States, it was a military failure, and Congress resolved that Nixon could not use American troops in extending the war without congressional approval. The following year, without American troops, the United States supported a South Vietnamese invasion of Laos. This too failed. In 1971, 800,000 tons of bombs were dropped by the United States on Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. As the conflict shifted towards an air war, servicemen's resistance also spread to new areas.
In the autumn of 1973, with no victory in sight and North Vietnamese troops entrenched in various parts of the South, the United States agreed to accept a settlement that would withdraw American troops and leave the revolutionary troops where they were, until a new elected government would be set up including Communist and non-Communist elements. But the Saigon government refused to agree, and the United States decided to make one final attempt to bludgeon the North Vietnamese into submission. It sent waves of B-52s over Hanoi and Haiphong, destroying homes and hospitals, killing unknown numbers of civilians. The attack did not work. Many of the B-52s were shot down, there was angry protest all over the world - and Kissinger went back to Paris and signed very much the same peace agreement that had been agreed on before.
The United States withdrew its forces, continuing to give aid to the Saigon government, but when the North Vietnamese launched at tacks in early 1975 against the major cities in South Vietnam, the government collapsed. In late April 1975, North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon. The American embassy staff fled, along with many Vietnamese who feared Communist rule, and the long war in Vietnam was over. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and both parts of Vietnam were unified as the [so-called - libcom] Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
This article was taken from Howard Zinn’s excellent A People's History of the United States. OCRed by Linda Towlson and lightly edited by libcom - US to UK spelling, additional details, clarifications and links added, with a short introduction, also by libcom.