What is known to Americans as the Vietnam War is known to Vietnamese as the American War and to historians as the Second Indochina War (the First Indochina War was the war between France and the Viet Minh between 1946 and 1954). Like the American Civil War, it was a conflict between north and south in which brothers sometimes fought against brothers.

In the Second Indochina War (1954–75),Viet Cong—communist forces in South Vietnam—and regular People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces from communist North Vietnam—with logistical support from China and the Soviet Union—fought and ultimately defeated the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, South Vietnam’s military), which was supported—and sometimes dominated—by the U.S. military. The Vietnamese estimate that they lost nearly 3 million lives and suffered more than 4 million injuries during the U.S. involvement in the war.

Before Iraq and Afghanistan, the Vietnam War was the U.S.’s longest war, longer that the American Civil War or the two world wars. About 8.74 million American men and women (including 3.14 million in the armed forces) served in Vietnam— twice the number that went to Europe in World War II—between 1964 and 1972. It was the only war the Americans ever lost even though they technically won most of the battles.

The Vietnam War lasted for 8 years, 5 months and 20 days from 1964 to 1973. In comparison the the American Revolution (1775-83) lasted 8 years, 4 months and 15 days; the American Civil War (1861-65) lasted 3 years, 11 months and 28 days; American involvement in World War I lasted 1 year, 7 months and 5 days; American involvement in World War II lasted 3 years, 8 months and 25 days; the Korean War lasted 3 years, 1 month; and the first Persian Gulf War lasted 2 months and 25 days. The Iraq war lasted for eight years, six months and 25 days between March 20, 2003 and December 15, 2011. The war in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001 and was still going on in 2013.

The Vietnam War was also the first war that the United States fought that wasn’t conventional. Rather than fighting an enemy with clear objectives and territorial claims, the United States waged a "counterinsurgency" against an enemy that had no clear territorial aims and melted back into the population or the jungle after fighting.

In many ways the Vietnam War was a war against an ideology: Communism. For the United States, there was no threat to it national security and there was no request to help a historic ally. In the beginning it wasn’t even a war but a "counterinsurgency." For the Vietnamese the Vietnam War was both a nationalist war against outsiders—the Americans as the First Indochina War was as a war against French outsiders—and a civil war. Combat was a combination of guerilla and conventional warfare.

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Vietnam War Casualties and Cost

In total, 3.14 million Americans (including 7200 women) served in the US armed forces in Vietnam during the war. Officially, 58,183 Americans were killed in action or are listed as missing in action (MIA) and 153,303 were wounded. Pentagon figures indicate that by 1972, 3689 fixed-wing aircraft and 4857 helicopters had been lost and 15 million tonnes of ammunition had been expended. The direct cost of the war was officially put at US$165 billion, though its real cost to the economy was double that or more. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The number of Americans that died during the Vietnam War was roughly equal to the number of American killed in the Korean War and half the number killed in World War I. About 74,000 U.S. soldiers died in World War II, 117,000 in World War I and 600,000 in the American Civil War, The number of wounded that died in the Vietnam War was 1 in 4, compared to 1 in 8 in the second Persian Gulf War. At its peak in April 1969, there were American 554,000 troops stationed in Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, about 10 percent of the population of Vietnam was either killed or wounded. By the end of 1973, 223,748 South Vietnamese soldiers had been killed in action; North Vietnamese and VC fatalities have been estimated at one million. According to figures by the Vietnamese government that weren't released until 1997, the Vietnam News Agency reported, three million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians on both sides died, 4.4 million were wounded, 800,000 were left permanently disabled, and 2 million people (including 50,000 children born with deformities) were affected by Agent Orange.According to U.N. estimates the population of North and South Vietnam in 1965 around the time the war began was around 40 million. The population of a united Vietnam in 1975 around the time the war ended was around 50 million.

The North Vietnamese Amy and the southern Communist Viet Cong lost nearly 1.5 million soldiers. The South Vietnamese Army lost about 185,000 soldiers. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, or even millions—depending how you limit or expand the scope of the war—were also killed or wounded in Cambodia and Laos. Most put the Vietnamese death toll at between 2 million and 3 million. But there are some sources that say 4 million civilians alone were killed. Even if the 2 million figure is correct that works out four percent of the population.

Expenditures on the Vietnam War ate up nearly a fifth of the U.S. national budget-at a rate of $2 billion a month in 1967 dollars. The expense helped create a huge budget deficit that dogged the United States through the 1970s and 80s. By the end of the war a total of 3,689 planes and 4,867 helicopters had been lost and 15 million tons of bombs and ammunition had been spent and 20 million tons of chemicals were used by the Americans.

U.S. Presidents and the Vietnam War

William J. Dobson wrote in the Washington Post, “Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to lie to Congress about U.S. involvement in Vietnam when he committed the first small detachment of B-26 bombers and Air Force personnel to assist French forces there. Sen. John F. Kennedy questioned the logic of the U.S. commitment to defend Saigon from the North Vietnamese, but somehow those doubts melted once he was in the Oval Office; he never asked Congress to authorize his policy in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson wanted a resolution to scale up in Vietnam — and of course the master of the Senate knew he had the votes — but he inadvertently created his own dangerous precedent: Loose, hasty, open-ended resolutions that support American presidents in committing troops abroad — and are preferably crafted in the White House — have become the standard. And Richard Nixon, with a strong assist from Henry Kissinger, revealed the gross dangers of a president deploying force with a free hand. [Source: William J. Dobson, Washington Post, September 13, 2013 ==]

“During the Cold War, it was easier for a president to argue that a particular foreign danger represented an “imminent threat.” The ideological, zero-sum nature of the superpower contest let a president rationalize military interventions on the far corners of the map. If one communist insurgency could lead to the next, then the front lines of the global struggle were anywhere the president said they might be. “Domino visions were everywhere,” Marvin Kalb wrote. The bar is fortunately higher now, and for the American public the administration has yet to clear it in Syria.” ==

Michael Barone wrote in U.S. News & World Report, "Eisenhower sought to discourage further Soviet aggression by maintaining U.S. forces in Europe and Asia, by constructing alliances in the underdeveloped world, and by threatening massive retaliation with nuclear weapons even up to what his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, called "the brink of war." The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened to isolate U.S. forces in conventionally indefensible Berlin in 1957, 1960, and 1961 and installed nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962; Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy faced down the threats to Berlin, and Kennedy after tense negotiations persuaded the Soviets to withdraw the missiles, by secretly withdrawing missiles from Turkey and guaranteeing there would be no further attempts to overthrow the Castro regime. Khrushchev's successors never again made such threats, but they did encourage coups and guerrilla movements in the Third World, with varying success. [Source: Michael Barone, U.S. News & World Report, January 20, 2006 <<<]

"And nowhere more so than in Vietnam. Viet Cong insurgents had been operating in South Vietnam, aided by Communist North Vietnam, since the country was divided in 1954. The United States, in line with the Truman Doctrine, sent economic and military aid to South Vietnam. The critical moment of escalation came in August 1963, when Kennedy approved a coup against the South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem; in November, Diem was killed. This effectively gave the responsibility for South Vietnam to the United States. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, eventually sent 540,000 U.S. soldiers to Vietnam. But Gen. William Westmoreland's strategy of using intense firepower in the jungles and mountains resulted in heavy American casualties while failing to break the hold of the Viet Cong in densely populated areas. Johnson's refusal to threaten nuclear weapons and his unwillingness to attack North Vietnam, for fear of the kind of Chinese intervention that had nearly defeated the United States in Korea, meant the Communists had no reason to agree to a Korea-style peace. American opinion turned against the war, forcing Johnson to retire. Richard Nixon reduced troop levels, and Gen. Creighton Abrams adopted a strategy of protecting populated areas and building up South Vietnamese forces. A North Vietnamese invasion was repelled in 1972 and a peace agreement signed in December. But in 1975 the North Vietnamese attacked again in force, and a newly elected Democratic Congress denied the aid sought by Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, for the South Vietnamese. Saigon fell in April 1975--a galling defeat for America and a disaster for millions of South Vietnamese. <<<

“The outcome in Vietnam would inhibit American presidents and the American military for years to come. Jimmy Carter responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with an embargo on Soviet grain sales. When Iranian revolutionaries seized diplomats--an act of war under the laws of diplomacy--he responded with protracted negotiations and an eight-helicopter rescue mission that failed. Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980; the hostages were released on Inauguration Day, immediately after the Gipper was sworn in. Reagan's vast defense buildup in the 1980s, and his endorsement of strategic missile defense, were one factor in convincing Soviet leaders that they could no longer match America. <<

Films about the Vietnam War

Films: “Deer Hunter” (1978); Francis Ford Coppala's “Apocalypse Now” (1979); “Rambo: First Blood” (1982); “Rambo: First Blood Part II” (1985); “Rambo III” (1988); “Missing in Action” (1984) with Chuck Norris; “Missing in Action II” (1985); “Missing in Action III” (1988); “Platoon” (1986); “Hamburger Hill” (1987); Stanley Kubrick's “Heavy Metal Jacket” (1987); “Good Morning Vietnam” (1987); “Casualties of War” (1989); “Born on the Forth of July” (1989); and “Heaven & Earth” (1993).

Films about the Vietnam War have been shot in the Philippines (“Apocalypse Now” ; “Platoon”; “Missing in Action films” ) Thailand (“Deer Hunter” and “Good Morning Vietnam”); British Columbia (“Rambo”); Acapulco (“Rambo II”); California (“Rambo III”) and Dorsett; England (“Full Metal Jacket”).

“Platoon” has been described as the best Vietnam War movie from the GIs perspective because it was directed by Oliver Stone, a former infantryman who actually fought in the war. The Rambo character is reportedly based on the exploits of a retired Army officer named James (Bo) Gritz, who organized four missions into Indochina, looking for MIAs and POWs. No prisoners or missing soldiers were found or rescued. One of Gritz's men, however, was captured by Laotian troops. "First Blood" (1982), the original Rambo movie had a note of hopelessness, as the main character was an American veteran of the Vietnam War who was misunderstood and abused on his return home.

Documentaries: “Hearts and Minds” (1974) by Peter Davis, featuring Gen. William Westmoreland, J.W. Fullbright, examines how the U.S. got itself into such a big mess in Vietnam , using interviews and footage from the war. “Winter Soldier” features American GIs describing the horrors they witnessed, and in some cases committed, in Vietnam.

“The Fog of War”, essentially a long interview with Robert McNamara about his involvements in the Vietnam War and 20th century warfare, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2004. Directed by Errol Morris, it was released when the situation in Iraq was quite bad. The parallels between the wars in Iraq and Vietnam were not hard to miss.

See Film

Books about the Vietnam War

Books: “Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War” by Stanley Kutler; “Vietnam and the United States”; “The Vietnam War: An Eyewitness History”; “After the War” by Neil Sheehan; “Winners and Losers” by Gloria Emerson; “Everything We Had” by Al Santoli; “Flashbacks” by Morley Safer; “No Longer Enemies” by Fred Down; “Fortunate Son” by Lewis Puller; “Vietnam” by Stanley Karnow; “An American Requiem” by James Carroll; “The Living and the Dead” by Paul Hedrickson; “They Marched Into Sunlight” by David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster, 2003)

“Dispatches” by Michael Herr (Knopf, 1977), many say, is the best written account of the Vietnam War. “March of Folly” by Barbara Tuchman (1984) explains how the United States stumbled into Vietnam. “Vietnam: A History” by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and historian Stanley Karnow was the companion for an acclaimed PBS television series. Bernard B. Fall was a prominent war correspondent, historian, political scientist, and expert on Indochina during the 1950s and 1960s. “Last Reflections on a War” is a compilation of dispatches and accounts written by Fall shortly before he was killed by a booby trap in northern South Vietnam in February 1967 when he was 40. “Hell in a Very Small Place” is Fall’s classic account of the Siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. “Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans” by Wallace Terry gives an interesting take on the war.

Fiction writers who specialize in the Vietnam War:Tim O'Brien, Robert Stone, Bobbie Ann Mason and Philip Caputo. “Fields of Fire” , a novel by James Webb, is recommended. Bao Ninh's 1991 novel “The Sorrow of War” is a good novel about a soldier who returns from the war to find his former life in ruins. In his famous short story “The Things They Carried”, Tim O’Brien wrote that soldiers carried "love letters from home, bags of marijuana, fingernail clippers, grenades, land mines, good luck charms, insecticide, bandages, psyop leaflets, copies of Stars and Stripes and tanning lotion. "Often they carried each other, the wounded and the weak."

Books by Vietnamese writers: “Viet Cong Memoir” by Trinh Nhu Tang; “Where the Ashes Are” by Nguyen Qui Duc; “Shallow Graves” by Tran Thi Nga; “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places” by Le Ly Hayslip. Books of the Life of Soldiers: “We Were Soldiers and “Once and Young” by Harold Moore; William Broyle's “Brothers in Arms.” Books of Policy and Strategy: “In Retrospect” by Robert McNamara; “Vietnam Now” by David Lamb (Public Affairs, 2000); “A Necessary War: A Reinterprection if America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict” by Michael Lind (The Free Press, 1999). See Literature

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated May 2014

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