For many in the West, the conflict in Vietnam was one of the most profound and disruptive events of the 20th century. But the struggle for control of Vietnam is a much longer one that dates back centuries. For the best part of a millennium, ancient and medieval Vietnam was ruled by its powerful northern neighbour, China. Viet rulers finally regained control of their country in the 10th century and maintained their autonomy for almost 800 years. But by the mid-1800s, the rising tide of European colonialism was lapping at the shores of Vietnam. As the great powers of Europe scrambled to obtain colonies in Africa and Asia, the French had their eyes fixed on what they called Indochina: modern-day Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. By the 1880s French imperialists had muscled their way into Vietnam, disempowered the Nguyen emperor and established control. Thus began the transformation of Vietnam from a thriving kingdom based on community and subsistence, into a colonial slave state fixated with labour, production and exports.
It follows that French colonialism in Vietnam was chiefly about profit. Colonial officials formed vast plantations to supply their home country with rice and rubber. Thousands of local farmers were recruited or coerced to labour as ‘coolies’. The Vietnamese were subject to forced labour, heavy taxation and French monopolies on salt, alcohol and opium. Sections of Vietnamese cities were transformed to resemble the streets of Paris or Lyon. This went on for more than a half century until 1940, when French rule was undermined by invading Japanese forces. World War II hastened the formation of the Viet Minh, a union of nationalists and communists organised to resist foreign occupation. Their leader, Ho Chi Minh, had started life as a nationalist before embracing Marxism and living and working in the Soviet Union.
The Japanese surrender in 1945 left Vietnam without a government, a situation exploited by the Viet Minh. In August, Ho Chi Minh formally declared a new and independent republic of Vietnam – but the return of the French soon thwarted the prospect of a Viet Minh government. What eventually followed was a bitter nine-year struggle between French forces and the Viet Minh, a conflict now known as the First Indochina War. It ended with the humiliating French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, leading to Paris ordering a rapid withdrawal from Vietnam. French control now gave way to American backing, as Washington resolved to protect Vietnam from communist infiltration and aggression. A 1954 conference in Geneva formulated a roadmap for Vietnamese reunification and independence – but this was ignored by both the US and South Vietnam.
By the late 1950s Vietnam was firmly divided into two halves. As had happened in Korea a decade earlier, the governments of US-backed South Vietnam and communist North Vietnam both claimed to be the legitimate rulers of the entire peninsula. War unfolded in the early 1960s as the South came under threat, both by the rise of the communist North and the terrorism and subversive actions of the Viet Cong. By now, Vietnam was a focal point of the Cold War: the global struggle between Western democratic nations and communist regimes in Soviet Russia and China. The Americans, determined to halt the advance of communism into Asia, resolved to protect and defend South Vietnam from communist aggression.
This commitment began in the 1950s with foreign aid, logistic support and military training. The Americans installed a friendly South Vietnamese leader, the nationalist Ngo Dinh Diem; they equipped him with money, arms and strategies to consolidate his nation and combat the Viet Cong. But the Diem experiment failed and, by 1964, many policy advisors and generals were calling for direct military involvement in Vietnam. The rise of a new president and an August 1964 attack on US naval vessels provided a pretext for landing American combat troops in Vietnam. The first of these arrived in 1965; by the start of the following year there were more than 200,000 American soldiers there. Before its conclusion, more than a half million US personnel would serve in Vietnam.
US tacticians believed the war could be won by eradicating the Viet Cong and its bases in South Vietnam, combined with massive aerial bombardment against the North. Few believed the North Vietnamese, a nation of farmers and fishermen, could withstand the might of the American war machine. But Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap and other communist leaders were aware of Vietnam’s history of resisting foreign oppression. They believed that with patience, tactical planning, organisation and discipline, the Americans – like the French before them – could be defeated. Thus began what Ho Chi Minh described as a battle between ‘the elephant and the tiger’. The Vietnam War raged for more than a decade, devastating the nation, disrupting the region, leaving more than two million dead and having a profound effect on American policies and attitudes.
This Alpha History section explores the political, social and military aspects of the century long struggle for Vietnam – from the advent of French colonialism to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and John Rae . To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Conflict in Vietnam”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date], http://alphahistory.com/vietnam/.