In the mid 1950s, Ho Chi Minh promised to "liberate" South Vietnam. Various North Vietnamese programs, policies and campaigns were conceived to disrupt the South Vietnamese government. These included assassinated local officials and raiding industrial plants, plantations and military installations. When it came to fighting, the North Vietnamese communists employed hit and run guerilla tactics melting into the jungles when they were finished.

The United States, beginning with Truman, helped France reestablish its colonies in Indochina and supported France in its war with the Viet Minh to the tune $2 billion a year in 1950s dollars. In 1950, 35 U.S. soldiers arrive din Vietnam as part of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory group (MAAG). 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.

In 1950, China and the Soviet Union recognized North Vietnam. Up until then Ho Chi Minh had largely been ignored. Anti-Communist sentiments grew in the McCarthy era in the 1950s and U.S. involvement in Vietnam became a major issue in the 1964 election, with Republican candidates warning Ho Chi Minh to stop fighting "or there won't be enough left of North Vietnam to grow rice on it." This message carried overtones that dropping nuclear weapons on North Vietnam was an option.

Should the U.S. Go to Vietnam or Should It Stay Home?

There was a lot of resistance to sending troops to Vietnam. Harry Truman and his Secretary of State Dean Acheson—liberal anti-Communists and the architects of the Communist containment policy—opposed it because it was outside the "defensible perimeter." Even the great cold warrior Dwight Eisenhower opposed a commitment there. As late as 1964, Lyndon Johnson said he would not send troops to Vietnam to do what "Asian boys ought to be doing themselves."

The Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administration were all worried that if South Vietnam fell to the Communists it would serve as a "springboard for Soviet and Chinese domination off Southeast Asia." The success of the Korean War as a means of halting Communist expansion was fresh in people's minds as was the extension of the belief to China and Russia that if Hitler had been stopped early World War II could have been prevented.

According to Lonely Planet: "The Americans saw France’s colonial war in Indochina as an important part of a worldwide struggle against communist expansion. Vietnam was the next domino and could not topple. In 1950, the US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) rocked into Vietnam, ostensibly to instruct local troops in the efficiency of US firepower; there would be American soldiers on Vietnamese soil for the next 25 years, first as advisers, and then the main force. A decisive turning point in US strategy came with the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Two US destroyers, the Maddox and the Turner Joy, claimed to have come under ‘unprovoked’ attack while sailing off the North Vietnamese coast. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

Vietnam, U.S. Policy and the Cold War

William J. Dobson wrote in the Washington Post, “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.” [Source: William J. Dobson, Washington Post, September 13, 2013]

Mark Philip Bradley wrote in the Chicago Tribune: "U.S. policymakers could never see Vietnam outside a Cold War prism, inviting a host of misperceptions in which American views increasingly departed from those of its closest allies. The domino theory, the Truman Doctrine and NSC-68, which established America's Cold War foreign policy, created an almost apocalyptic vision of the international communist menace, one that fundamentally obscured the political, economic and social complexities of a decolonizing Vietnam. [Source: Mark Philip Bradley, Chicago Tribune, June 06, 2004. Bradley is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and author of "Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919-1950" \=/]

"Was Vietnam a necessary war? The most measured scholarly appraisals of U.S. decision-making during the war persuasively suggest it was not. Yet the logic of the Cold War appeared to make it so. In the mid-1960s, facing the almost-certain defeat of the non-communist South Vietnamese government by the forces of the National Liberation Front and North Vietnam, the Johnson administration made its fateful decisions to launch an American ground war in Vietnam. Many in the administration argued that the containment of international communism and the credibility of the U.S. in the eyes of its allies meant the U.S. had to make sure the spread of communism to South Vietnam was halted. \=/

"We now know based on newly revealed Vietnamese and American archival evidence that the Johnson administration significantly misrepresented the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which North Vietnamese forces allegedly twice attacked American patrol boats, to get a virtual blank check from Congress to prosecute the war in Vietnam. But at the time, from the perspective of U.S. policymakers, the Cold War made us do it. \=/

"Although in the 1960s most of America's allies in Western Europe shared the U.S. view of the seriousness of the Soviet threat and of the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam, they did not see American intervention as strategically wise. Quite the opposite. Only after getting deeper into the Vietnam quagmire did perceptions of American credibility began to falter. Similarly, the U.S. Cold War prism that informed Nixon's policy toward Vietnam often puzzled America's allies as the administration paradoxically expanded the war at the same time it sought American withdrawal and "peace with honor," as Nixon put it. \=/

Domino Theory and Vietnam

The notion that Communists were intent on overthrowing one country after another became known as the Domino Theory. Already by the 1950s, there were strong Communist governments in China, North Vietnam and North Korea and powerful Communist insurgencies in South Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Johnson said in one speech, "If we don’t stop the Red in South Vietnam, tomorrow they will be in Hawaii, and next week they’ll be in San Francisco." But as a former North Vietnamese military leader asked his American counterparts at 1997 conference on the war: "If the reason was to fight Communism why did the U.S. not help China in 1949, or why did the U.S. not help the Batista regime in Cuba in 1959?"

Marvin Ott, a professor of national security policy at the National War College, wrote in the Washington Post that the threat of communist expansion gave the U.S. no choice but to get involved in Vietnam: "In those years of 1962-64, at the depths of the Cold War, Southeast Asia appeared to be extraordinarily vulnerable in terms of American national security." [Source: Marvin Ott, Washington Post, August 24, 1994]

"Indonesia," Ott wrote, "the largest state in the region, was lurching toward economic chaos and political disintegration under the charismatic mismanagement of president Sukarno. To keep power, Sukarno began to collaborate even more closely with the Indonesian Communist Party, and to align Indonesia with China, North Korea and North Vietnam. In 1965 Sukarno initiated a war with neighboring Maltsua, largely on the grounds that Kuala Lumpur was unacceptably friendly toward the West. Later that year a communist-inspired coup in Indonesia very nearly succeeded."

"Trouble," wrote Ott, "was building elsewhere throughout Southeast Asia. Malaysia, in addition to Indonesian hostility, faced a lingering guerilla movement that still dominated some of the remote jungle hinterland. Singapore...was embroiled in a fierce struggle between communists and Lee Kuan Yew's anticommunist People's Action Party in 1961-62; in 1965 Singapore was suddenly expelled from Malaysia."

"Elsewhere, a large and active communist insurgency was gathering strength in northeast Thailand. Burma was similarly afflicted, as was the Philippines...North Vietnamese communists had taken power under Ho Chi Minh, and ancillary communist movements were positioning themselves for a takeover in South Vietnam and Laos. In Cambodia, a young French-installed ruler, Price Sihanouk, was moving to accommodate to the seemingly inevitable victories of communism in the rest of Indochina."

ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), which was founded in Bangkok in August 1967, grew out of the Association of Southeast Asia, which was established in 1961 but collapsed a year later.

U.S. Policy Towards Indochina and Vietnam in the Kennedy Years

As Kennedy was preparing to take office, U.S. President Eisenhower recommended that America give military assistance support to Laos if the North Vietnamese intervention there continued. Within two months after taking office, Kennedy sent troops to Thailand adjoining Laos. He didn’t want to send troops directly to Laos.

In his 1995 book “In Retrospect” , Robert McNamara wrote: "I had never visited Indochina, nor did I understand or appreciate its history, language, culture or values. The same had to be said to varying degrees, about President Kennedy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk" and other influential advisors in the Kennedy administration. "Worse our government lacked experts for us...the irony of this gap was that it existed largely because the top east Asian and China experts in the State department...had been purged during the McCarthy hysteria of the 1950s." [Source: Robert S. McNamara, "In Retrospect" Time Books, Random House, excerpted in Newsweek, April 17, 1995]

"President Kennedy said," McNamara wrote, "we could try to help through training and logistical support, but we could not fight their war. That was our view then. Had we held to it, the whole history of the period would have been different." In December 1961, after North Vietnam opened up a supply line to South Vietnam through Laos, Kennedy sent U.S. military "advisors" to South Vietnam Their numbers had grown to 16,000 by the time Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. A total of 392 Americans were killed in action from 1962 through 1964 in Southeast Asia, mainly in Laos and Vietnam.

Support for South Vietnam in the Kennedy Years

William J. Dobson wrote in the Washington Post,“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. [Source: William J. Dobson, Washington Post, September 13, 2013]

In 1961 the rapid increase of insurgency in the South Vietnamese countryside led President John F. Kennedy's administration to decide to increase United States support for the Diem regime. Some $US65 million in military equipment and $US136 million in economic aid were delivered that year, and by December 3,200 United States military personnel were in Vietnam. The United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) was formed under the command of General Paul D. Harkins in February 1962. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The cornerstone of the counterinsurgency effort was the strategic hamlet program, which called for the consolidation of 14,000 villages of South Vietnam into 11,000 secure hamlets, each with its own houses, schools, wells, and watchtowers. The hamlets were intended to isolate guerrillas from the villages, their source of supplies and information, or, in Maoist terminology, to separate the fish from the sea in which they swim. The program had its problems, however, aside from the frequent attacks on the hamlets by guerrilla units. The self-defense units for the hamlets were often poorly trained, and support from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was inadequate. Corruption, favoritism, and the resentment of a growing number of peasants who were forcibly being forced to resettled plagued the program. It was estimated that of the 8,000 hamlets established, only 1,500 were viable. *

Campaign to ‘Liberate’ the South Begins in 1959

The North Vietnamese campaign to ‘liberate’ South Vietnam began in 1959. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, which had been used for several years to supply insurgents in Laos and sympathizers in South Vietnam, was expanded. By 1959 some of the 90,000 Viet Minh troops that had returned to the North following the Geneva Agreements had begun filtering back into the South to take up leadership positions in the insurgency apparat.

Mass demonstrations, punctuated by an occasional raid on an isolated post, were the major activities in the initial stage of this insurgency. Communist-led uprisings launched in 1959 in the lower Mekong Delta and Central Highlands resulted in the establishment of liberated zones, including an area of nearly fifty villages in Quang Ngai Province. In areas under Communist control in 1959, the guerrillas established their own government, levied taxes, trained troops, built defense works, and provided education and medical care. In order to direct and coordinate the new policies in the South, it was necessary to revamp the party leadership apparatus and form a new united front group. Accordingly, COSVN, which had been abolished in 1954, was reestablished with General Nguyen Chi Thanh, a northerner, as chairman and Pham Hung, a southerner, as deputy chairman.[Source: Library of Congress *]

In 1960, Vietnamese in the south who hated the Diem regime began to take up arms against the South Vietnamese government. They were supported by the North Vietnamese government, who began feeding them supplies and irregular troops along what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The United States responded by sending in advisors and army trainers o assist the Diem government.

For many Vietnamese Communism was an expression of nationalism not a political ideology. Ho Chi Minh originally pleaded with the United States and the West for support but his please were rejected. This gave the North Vietnam little choice but to fall into the open arms of the Soviet Union and Communist China. The North Vietnamese welcomed tanks, airplanes, missiles and other weapons from the Soviet Union and China but refused offers to have foreign combat troops stationed on Vietnamese soil and for the most part refused Soviet and Chinese advise on how to conduct the war. The Soviets were against war because they didn’t want to antagonize the United States and the Chinese didn’t want to have a protracted guerilla war near their borders.

"By the fall of 1961," McNamara wrote, "guerilla infiltration from North Vietnam had increased substantially, and the Viet Cong had intensified their attacks on President Ngo Dihn Diem's government." The infiltration occurred as Diem's hold on power was becoming more tenuous.

Establishment of the Viet Cong

In April 1960 universal military conscription was implemented in North Vietnam. In December of the same year Hanoi announced the formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF), a political-military group whose objective were the reunification of Vietnam and the ouster of foreign troops. In the south, the NLF was derogatorily called the Viet Cong (VC for short), a shortening of "Viet Nam Cong San" (Vietnamese for "Vietnamese Communist"). American GI's later called them "Charlie."

The National Liberation Front (known in Vietnamese as Mat Tran Dan Toc Giai Phong Mien Nam), was founded, with representatives on its Central Committee from all social classes, political parties, women's organizations, and religious groups, including Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, the Buddhists, and the Catholics. In order to keep the NLF from being obviously linked with the Vietnam Workers Party (VWP) and the North Vietnam, its executive leadership consisted of individuals not publicly identified with the Communists, and the number of party members in leadership positions at all levels was strictly limited. Furthermore, in order not to alienate patriotic noncommunist elements, the new front was oriented more toward the defeat of the United Statesbacked Saigon government than toward social revolution. *

In response to increased United States involvement, all communist armed units in the South were unified into a single People's Liberation Armed Force (PLAF) in 1961. These troops expanded in number from fewer than 3,000 in 1959 to more than 15,000 by 1961, most of whom were assigned to guerrilla units. Southerners trained in the North who infiltrated back into the South composed an important element of this force. Although they accounted numerically for only about 20 percent of the PLAF, they provided a well-trained nucleus for the movement and often served as officers or political cadres. By late 1962, the PLAF had achieved the capability to attack fixed positions with battalionsized forces.

Expansion of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Forces in South Vietnam

The NLF was also expanded to include 300,000 members and perhaps 1 million sympathizers by 1962. Land reform programs were begun in liberated areas, and by 1964 approximately 1.52 million hectares had been distributed to needy peasants, according to Communist records. In the early stages, only communal lands, uncultivated lands, or lands of absentee landlords were distributed. Despite local pressure for more aggressive land reform, the peasantry generally approved of the program, and it was an important factor in gaining support for the liberation movement in the countryside. In the cities, the Workers' Liberation Association of Vietnam (Hoi Lao Dong Giai Phong Mien Nam), a labor organization affiliated with the NLF, was established in 1961. *

The NLF launched its campaign as the Diem government was rapidly losing control of the countryside. In an effort to prevent infiltration, South Vietnamese villagers in areas of guerrilla activity were rounded up and forcibly placed in "strategic hamlets" where they could watched. The Strategic Hamlets Program, which was implemented in 1962, was based on British tactics in Malaya and similar to the French strategy of creating protected enclaves like Dien Bien Phu. Initially the program was deemed a failure. The villages were infiltrated anyway and the program was dropped after Diem's death. But years later the North Vietnamese admitted that the program did cause them major problems. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

The battle at Ap Bac in January 1963 has been called "the turning point of the early stages of the war" because it showed the Viet Cong were intent on winning the war and the South Vietnamese army was weak and more concerned about saving its ass than keeping Diem in power and fighting. At Ap Bac, for the first time, the Viet Cong fought at battalion strength and won a decisive victory against Vietnamese troops supported by American helicopters, armored vehicles, and artillery. Two Viet Cong soldiers received North Vietnam’s highest military-exploit medal for winning this battle. One was the commander of the Communist forces. The other was Pham Xuan An (See Spies), who devised the winning strategy.

Buddhist-Led Protests Against the Diem Regime

Diem grew steadily more unpopular as his regime became more repressive. In the early 1960s the South was rocked by violent anti-Diem demonstrations by university students and Buddhist clergy, which included several self-immolations by monks that received worldwide attention.

Some of the sharpest critics on Diem abuses of human rights were Buddhists. Harassment of Buddhist groups by South Vietnamese forces in early 1963 led to a crisis situation in Saigon. In May 1963, Diem, a Catholic, prohibited the flying of a Buddhist flag. Thousands of Buddhists were arrested and some were tortured and killed. On May 8, 1963, South Vietnamese troops fired into a crowd of demonstrators protesting the Diem government's discriminatory policies toward Buddhists, killing nine persons.

Hundreds of Buddhist monks responded by staging peaceful protest demonstrations and by fasting. In June a monk set himself on fire in Saigon as a protest, and, by the end of the year, six more monks had committed self-immolation. On August 21, special forces under the command of Ngo Dinh Nhu raided the pagodas of the major cities, killing many monks and arresting thousands of others. Following demonstrations at Saigon University on August 24, an estimated 4,000 students were rounded up and jailed, and the universities of Saigon and Hue were closed.

Burning Buddhist Monks in Saigon

As part of a widespread Buddhist revolt, a monk named Thich Quang Duc was taken in an old Austin motorcar from Hue to Saigon, where he doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire at a major intersection in 1963. A photograph of the self immolation taken by Malcolm Browne of AP appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

Quang Duc was a members of the Unified Buddhist Church, which had a history of political activity and now is currently outlawed by the Communists. Many monks, and even some nuns, burned themselves. After the AP photograph was published public confidence in the Diem government plummeted and attacks from the North Vietnam increased. Later protests by Buddhist drove South Vietnam close to civil war after an powerful warlord allied himself with the Buddhists.

Ula Ilnytzky of Associated Press wrote: "The phone calls went out from Saigon's Xa-Loi Buddhist pagoda to chosen members of the foreign news corps. The message: Be at a certain location tomorrow for a "very important" happening. The next morning, June 11, 1963, an elderly monk named Thich Quang Duc, clad in a brown robe and sandals, assumed the lotus position on a cushion in a blocked-off street intersection. Aides drenched him with aviation fuel, and the monk calmly lit a match and set himself ablaze. Of the foreign journalists who had been alerted to the shocking political protest against South Vietnam's U.S.-supported government, only one, Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press, showed up. [Source: Ula Ilnytzky, Associated Press, August 28, 2012 /+]

The photos he took appeared on front pages around the globe and sent shudders all the way to the White House, prompting President John F. Kennedy to order a re-evaluation of his administration's Vietnam policy. "We have to do something about that regime," Kennedy told Henry Cabot Lodge, who was about to become U.S. ambassador to Saigon. Browne recalled in a 1998 interview that that was the beginning of the rebellion, which led to U.S.-backed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem being overthrown and murdered, along with his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, the national security chief. "Almost immediately, huge demonstrations began to develop that were no longer limited to just the Buddhist clergy, but began to attract huge numbers of ordinary Saigon residents," Browne. Hal Buell, who was a deputy photo editor in New York City when the photo of the burning monk was taken, said, "That picture put the Vietnam War on the front page more than anything else that happened before that. That's where the story stayed for the next 10 years or more." /+\

Diem and Madame Diem

Ngo Dinh Diem was initially very popular and enjoyed a wide degree of popular support in the south. But as time went by he came increasingly unpopular, especially among the military. Much of this was the result of his result of the power held by his brother and closet advisor, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who tried to manipulate the military’s top brass while leading brutal crackdowns and the opposition, Communist sympathizers and street demonstrators.

One of the most notorious figures in the Diem era was his sister-in-law Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu who served as the first lady of South Vietnam because Diem was a widower. Known as the "Dragon Lady of Vietnam," Madame Nhu was raised in luxury in Vietnam and France and had nothing but disdain for the lower classes. She was the husband of Ngo Dinh Nhu.

Madame Nhu could be charming and persuasive but also vengeful, insensitive and cruel. At first she was admired in the United States and Europe for her efforts to win supporters to South Vietnamese causes. But later her caustic remarks, greed and lack of compassion made her lose support at home and abroad. Newsweek correspondent Francious Scully was thrown out of the country for writing that Madame Nhu "was the most detested personality in South Vietnam." Life called Madame Nhu the most devious" beauty "anywhere east of the Suez." After the Buddhist monks began burning themselves, Madame Nhu said, "Let them burn and we shall clap our hands." She accused the monks of staging a "barbecues with imported gasoline." The Diem government soon fell after that.

Assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem

By the summer of 1963, coup plotting against Diem was a major past time and it was hard to think of any group that didn't want to get rid of him. The United States was angry with him for not fighting hard enough against the North Vietnamese. In a failed coup attempt in 1960, a battalion of air force pilots and paratroopers advanced on the presidential palace before being turned back. In 1962, his place was bombed by his own air force in another coup attempt.

Outraged by the Diem regime's repressive policies and regarding Diem himself more and more as a liability , the Kennedy administration indicated to South Vietnamese military leaders that Washington would be willing to support a new military government, tacitly throwing its support behind a military coup. The Kennedy administration decided "Diem must go." While Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu—Madame Nhu's husband—prepared a phony coup to keep to their hold on power a real coup was prepared by the CIA and Gen. Duon Van "Big" Minh, a good friend of the Americans. A group of young, over-excited generals led the operation. When things got out of hand, both Diem and his brother were killed.

On November 1, 1963—three months after United States had withdrawn support from Diem and his government—at 1:30pm Diem and Nhu watched from their windows in the presidential palace as the phony coup unfolded. Then they sensed something was up when a general who was supposed to be on their side didn't answer their phone calls. In the evening Diem and Nhu stuffed thousands of dollars of cash into suitcases and fled the palace through secret tunnels to a waiting car and were taken to the home of a friend, a Chinese businessman.

The next day, November 2, Diem and Nhu sought refuge in St. Francis Xavier church. In a phone conversation with one of their generals, they agreed to surrender and were taken out of the church with their hands tied behind their backs and shoved into a car. While in the car Nhu got into a fierce argument with an army officer, who reportedly grabbed a bayonet and stabbed Nhu and then took his revolver and fired a bullet through Diem's head. The army claimed that Diem and Ngo had been killed at their own hand "accidently" and their bodies were hastily buried in unmarked graves.

Kennedy Regretted the 1963 Vietnam Coup

Recordings released by the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in 1998, Reuters reported, show a remorseful President John F. Kennedy shocked at the death of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem and regretting the policy decisions that lead to the 1963 coup. In one of the recordings, acquired from the estate of the late president's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, made on November 4, 1963, Kennedy, his voice sounding sad, dictates a memo about the November 2 coup that lead to the overthrow of the South Vietnam government and Diem's death. [Source: Reuters, November 24, 1998 **]

"I feel that we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of early August in which we suggested the coup,'' Kennedy said. "In my judgement that wire was badly drafted, it should never have been sent on a Saturday. I should have not given my consent to it without a round table conference in which (Secretary of Defense Robert) McNamara and (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff) General (Maxwell) Taylor could have presented their views." According to Kennedy's tape, McNamara, Taylor, the president's brother, Robert Kennedy, who was the attorney general and others all spoke out against backing a coup in the troubled southeast Asian republic. "In favor of the coup was State, led by Averell Harriman...'' Kennedy said on the tape. **

"I was shocked by the death of Diem,'' Kennedy said, recalling how he had once met him many years earlier. "He was an extraordinary character. While he became increasingly difficult in the last month, nevertheless, over a 10-year period, he held his country together.... The way he was killed made it particularly abhorrent.'' Like Kennedy, Diem was a Catholic. Less than three weeks later, Kennedy himself would be assassinated. **

Dr. Sheldon Stern, the library's historian, told reporters, ''For Kennedy, Vietnam was a country, not a war.'' It was one of many hot spots with which the president was concerned -- including the Berlin airlift, the Cuban missile crisis, the nuclear test ban treaty negotiations and growing anti-American sentiment in Latin America. "You listen to these tapes; you read the transcripts... you hear him talking about everything. It's incredibly complex,'' Stern said. **

Aftermath of the Diem Assassination

No one seemed to care that much that Diem died in mysterious circumstances, both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese alike were just glad he was gone. Spontaneous parties broke out in the streets. General Duong Van Minh took over the government. He was the first of a succession of military rulers who continued his erratic policies. The assassin was a major in a tank unit who reportedly sought revenge for the execution of a close friend.

The military regime eventually came under the leadership of Vice-Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky. A new American-style constitution was adopted. In the elections that followed U.S.-supported Nguyen Van Thieu was elected president and Ky became vice president. Thieu basically ran a military regime with a few token civilian cabinet member. He expanded the draft to create an army with 900,000 men.

Thieu was not popular and coup attempts and government shake ups marked the early years of his regime. Writer William Prochnau argued that the Diem assassination "effectively committed the United States to remaining in Vietnam for the duration of the war." The regime that took the place of Diem was unable to take care of itself, let alone fight the Viet Cong, without American support.

Madame Nhu spent the rest of her life living in exile, first in France and later in high-walled villas outside Rome. She accused the United States of masterminding the assignation and vowed, "All the devils in hell are against us, but we shall triumph." Madame Nhu died in 2011 in Rome.

Arrival of American Troops in South Vietnam

Direct involvement of the U.S. military in Vietnam began in 1957 with the deployment of the 14th Special Forces Operational Detachment. This unit was involved primarily in training the South Vietnamese army and encouraging non-Vietnamese ethnic tribes to fight against the Communists. The Green Berets that took part in this were effective winning hearts and minds by respecting local customs and building schools and clinics. By the 1960s, some 45,000 tribesmen in a fighting force called the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), operated 3,500 Special Forces troops in 249 village outposts.

D. M. Giangreco wrote in American Heritage magazine, "U.S. advisers trained the Army of Vietnam in counterinsurgent tactics and worked hard to deny the Viet Cong guerrillas free movement in the countryside by very quickly forging the many outlying tribes, which were not ethnically Vietnamese, into competent anticommunist forces. Tribesmen formed close bonds with the Green Berets, who scrupulously respected local customs and established medical clinics and schools in regions ignored by the Saigon government. By the late 1960s some 45,000 tribesmen had been actively involved in the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), operated by 3,500 Special Forces troops per year in a total of 249 village outposts beyond the easy reach of conventional U.S. and South Vietnamese units. Countless skirmishes and dozens of pitched battles were fought during the nine years of the CIDG program. The Green Berets’ activities with such tribal allies as thé Nungs, Montagnards, and Khmers remained the main focus of Special Forces efforts, but the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply network, running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam, also saw extensive longrange patrolling. Teams of Green Berets and tribal soldiers often spent weeks at a time in the contested jungles and severely disrupted communist operations. [Source: D. M. Giangreco, American Heritage magazine, November/December 2002 ++]

The first two Americans to die in Vietnam—Maj. Dale R. Ruis and Master Sgt. Chester M. Ovnand— were killed at Bien Hoa (20 miles north of Saigon) in 1959 during the showing of a film at a small military base. According to Time: "Communist terrorists (who had cased the place well) crept out of the darkness and surrounded the mess hall. Two positioned a French MAT machine gun in the rear window, two pushed gun muzzles through the pantry screen, and two others went to the front on the building to cover the Vietnamese guard. When Sergeant Ovnand snapped on the lights to change the first reel, the Communists opened fire."

In 1959, there were 7000 U.S. military personnel in Vietnam. In the early 1960s, when it became clear that the South Vietnamese army was unwilling to fight, the first combat troops began arriving in Vietnam. By the end of 1963, there were 16,300 military personnel in Vietnam.

In addition to troops the United States supplied South Vietnam with advanced weaponry and gave the South Vietnamese government hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid. Much of this build up was supposed to secret. Time's Stanley Karnow reported the arrival of 40 U.S. military helicopters on a U.S. aircraft carrier while the U.S. army information officer that accompanied him said, "I don't see anything." AP's Malcolm Browne photographed South Vietnamese planes taking off with U.S. pilots. The film of that was destroyed by American MPs.

C.I.A. in Vietnam and Laos

The C.I.A. was involved in Vietnam in the 1950s in psychological warfare, military training and guerilla raids. It helped Diem get rid of his political rivals but then turned its back on him when he became a liability and advised the generals that led the coup that led to Diem's assassination in 1963.

The CIA worked with the U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets) and CIA-trained Thai Special Service to establish the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), made up of 50,000 members of various ethnic groups, including the Hmong (mostly in Laos) and Montagnards, Khmer and Nung (mostly in Vietnam). They fought countless skirmishes and battles against Communists in Vietnam and Laos. One of their primary missions was disrupt supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. To this day, according to William M. Leary, a University of Georgia historian who analyzed Laotian operations for the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, CIA-led covert action in Laos was the largest paramilitary operation in the history of the Agency.

The headquarters for the operation in Laos was Long Tieng, a complex of barracks, training facilities and air strip that didn’t appear on any map but was the second largest city in Laos and one of the busiest airports in the world. Many reconnaissance and intelligence missions were run from here. Over 400 other air strips and facilities were scattered around Laos. There were so many that Laos by some counts had more airstrips than paved roads.

As part of their effort to combat Communism, the CIA helped expand the opium trade in Southeast Asia—first in Laos, then in Burma and finally in Vietnam—to help groups fighting Communism raise money and sew instability. See Below and See Opium Under Southeast Asia.

In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama posthumously recognized Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. "Dick" Etchberger for his courage under fire in 1968 during a mission on a remote Laotian mountain that was kept secret for decades because the U.S. wasn't supposed to have troops in the officially neutral Southeast Asian country. Etchberger was awarded the nation's highest military award, the Medal of Honor, after the government declassified his mission.

See Laos

See The Phoenix Program.

See Diem Assassination

Poor State of the South Vietnamese Army

By early 1965 the Saigon government was on its last legs. While North Vietnamese regular troops were flowing into South Vietnam on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, soldiers in the South Vietnam’s Army of the Republic Vietnam (the ARVN) were deserting at a rate of 2,000 a month and officers—notorious for corruption and incompetence— were positioning themselves where they could leave the country by boat if the fighting escalated. According to Lonely Planet: "The South was losing a district capital each week, yet in 10 years only one senior South Vietnamese army officer had been wounded. The army was getting ready to evacuate Hué and Danang, and the central highlands seemed about to fall. It was clearly time for the Americans to ‘clean up the mess’. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

"In 1965,"Gavin Young of The Guardian wrote, "the [South] Vietnamese Army seemed to be heading for total destruction; it was losing a battalion every two weeks, most of them in engagements close to Saigon. One day I travelled from Saigon to the riverside township of My To, south of the capital." There, in the Mekong Delta, Young joined column of South Vietnamese soldiers. "On a the wider tracks...I walked beside the young soldier who had been in front of me. He looked like a child playing soldier; his helmet was absurdly big, his American carbine to long and heavy. His dull green battledress revealed the amazing slightness of his body."

"When the shell hit, my impression was that of a small volcano had sprung out of the ground. I felt a tremendous shudder through the soles of my boots, and then the blast threw me to the ground...Then I heard human sounds, quite close, half sob, half gasp. A helmet lay on the ground like an abandoned seashell and near it was my friend...clasping his stomach...There was a terrible smell. I opened his blood sodden shirt and saw below his breast bone a dark, shining mess—ripped clothing, stained black with rain, blood, bile and whatever comes out of bellies torn open by metal splinters."

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

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.