The Vietnam War is a complex subject, and a college student could spend a whole semester on the simple basics. I tried several methods of relaying the information I learned in my class on the Vietnam War, and finally settled on a mish mash of terms in a loose chronological order.

Indochina- Collective name for Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand; the group of countries located between the superpowers of China, the most populated country, and India, the second most populous.

Brief history to get you acquainted

Trieu Da- An ancient Southern Chinese warlord, often likened to King Arthur, who gave the name of Nam Viet, or “southern waters,” to the land, thereby beginning the official Vietnam history.

Han Dynasty-Annexed Vietnam as a province of China and enslaved her people in order to produce rice.

Trung sisters-Both were widowed when a Chinese official had their husbands executed. They rallied the aristocrats, who in turn rallied the peasants to fight for freedom in 40 AD. Though they were successful, the Trung sisters committed suicide in a river when the Chinese came back 20 years later. Unlike most countries, Vietnam has not underestimated its women, and credit them with daring and cleverness, a fact which the US did not account for.

Kublai Khan- A fearsome Mongol warlord who attempted a 13th century invasion. The Vietnamese used the mountains along with guerrilla-style warfare as a defense. The Khan, who was able to conquer most of the world, couldn’t handle Vietnam. He tried to invade 3 times, and was unsuccessful in each. This is where the Vietnamese tested their medal and learned how to defend themselves.

Ming Dynasty-Invaded again, this time for rice, tusks, gems, and other ores. The Chinese tried to impose their culture by making the children attend Chinese schools, as well as forcing all of the people to wear Chinese clothing.

Ly Thuong-Wrote the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence

Le Loi- Much beloved hero of the Vietnamese people, he was often portrayed as a fisherman who caught a magical sword in his net. He was really a frustrated Vietnamese aristocrat, who went to the mountains in 1418 and proclaimed himself the, “prince of pacification,” and rallied his fellow countrymen for the ousting of the Chinese.

Battle of Tot Dong- Successful battle in 1426. Le Loi was so anxious to get rid of the Chinese, he provided them with junks and horses to make their way home.

Golden Age-The time that follows Le Loi’s successful uprising. He built his capital near Hanoi, and rewarded loyals with land and public works. The Le Thanh Tong Dynasty ruled quite peacefully for the next 400 years, encouraging education and structuring Vietnam with an efficient government.

North/south split- Upon the death of the last leader from the Le Thanh Tong Dynasty, Vietnam was split between the in-laws, with the Trinh ruling the north and the Nguyen ruling the south. The Nguyen turned to France for protection.

Part Two: French Involvement

Age of Discovery- Exploring was big business in the 16th century. Magellan’s voyage cost a huge amount of money, but the spices brought back on just one ship were enough to finance the whole venture. There was a lot of money to be made by tapping into the treasures of the undiscovered world. A nation would claim foreign lands to give its ships a safe harbor, tactical advantage, bragging rights, or just to make sure no one else got there first. France settled in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; only Thailand was able to retain independence. France wasn’t really happy with what Vietnam had to offer, but they were interested in a trade route to China.

Merchants- Although they tried, French merchants were not very successful in selling their products to the Vietnamese people.

Missionaries- Christian missionaries found more success, and thousands of Vietnamese were converted from the traditional Confucius religion. France was able to use the missionaries as an excuse to control Vietnam, maintaining that the missionaries were being mistreated and needed protection.

Francis Garnier- (1873) Explored the Red River deep into China, and proclaimed it open to all countries for trade.

White Man’s Burden- The idea that the more “civilized” nations were morally responsible to bring third world countries up to par. This attitude allowed the French to do the Vietnamese the “favor” of building amenities like bridges, dams, harbors, roads, and other public works. Of course, all labor was provided by the Vietnamese, who were paid lightly and taxed heavily for the privilege of having a road they didn’t need.

Mandate of Heaven- The belief that a leader is predestined because of divine right.

Ho Chi Minh- He lived away from Vietnam for many years, but returned home in the early 1940’s when Japan had taken over during WWII. Known affectionately as “Uncle Ho,” by most of his people, he was considered to have the Mandate of Heaven. Although he is one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, he was underestimated by the US, who considered the Vietnamese and other third world peoples as stupid and uncivilized. Ho Chi Minh was a tireless fighter, and an expert at propaganda. He refused to accept anything less than complete withdrawal from any and all countries trying to assert themselves upon Vietnam. He wanted his people to have independence, and would accept nothing less.

WWII and the aftermath- Hitler conquered France in 1940, and Japan took the Vietnam, but used France as a puppet to control it. After the allies won WWII, the area was handed back to France, which became overburdened by the effort and cost of dealing with the situation, especially because those in the north were relentless in their pursuit of independence. France began to ask its allies for help. By 1954, when the U.S. became involved, any person in southern Vietnam with an official position spoke fluent French, as well as carried distinctively French mannerisms.

Part Three-US Involvement

American Sentiment- During and after WWII, Americans were deathly afraid of a nuclear attack. Schools routinely held nuclear drills, and children were taught to hide under their desks in the event of an attack. There are many reasons America became involved in Vietnam, but the most pressing were:

Communism- Russia and China were huge superpowers, and other countries were beginning to join with them. At one point, Khrushchev, the leader of USSR, took off his shoe, slammed it against the podium, and screamed that he would crush his enemies.

Concentration camps- There was no information super highway, and the American people were not as dulled to images of atrocity as they are today. Americans were horrified to hear accounts of what happened in the concentration camps, and disturbed by grisly photographs of starving and naked victims. There was a great feeling of pride in being the country that liberated these helpless people, and American sentiment at the time was to help those less fortunate. The United States was the most powerful force in the world, and because of that, citizens felt responsible for helping those countries who were not so powerful from being overrun by communists.

Eisenhower- Eisenhower was content to give aide in the form of money and equipment to help France with its efforts, but the president was in no rush to send troops.

Kennedy-A young senator aspiring for presidency, Kennedy talked about the Vietnamese as, “our offspring.” It was Kennedy’s position that without our help, the Vietnamese people would be taken over by communism against their will.

Monolithic threat- Russia and China were two hugely powerful communist countries. Though they never really got along, the US and allies worried that China and Russia would join forces and declare war against democracies.

Diem-Although Ho Chi Minh practically begged for the position, the US decided to appoint Diem president of Vietnam. He had a lot going for him as far as US leaders were concerned, being both Catholic and anti-communist. Diem was from a well to do family, and knew very little about the village lifestyle, and attempted to outlaw traditions that had stood for generations. For example, it was customary for Vietnamese men to take many wives, but when Diem came into power he declared this illegal. Diem never attempted to win his constituents support, complaining the villagers were stupid and barbaric.

Why Not Ho? In his pursuit for independence, Ho Chi Minh looked to any country that could offer him help, including communist countries. The leaders of the US did not trust that Ho wasn’t a communist. The US was looking to appoint a leader that would do as he was told, and Ho was far too stubborn.

US Strategy- For the end of the 50’s and the beginning of the 60’s, the US was content to send millions and millions of dollars in cash and equipment to Vietnam. The hope was that the Southern Vietnam Army (ARVN), with the proper training, would be able to successfully defend itself against the north. Advisors were sent to train the ARVN officers on military tactics, as well as how to use the equipment provided.

Cultural difference- Although they weren’t usually outwardly mean, the US advisors saw the Vietnamese as crude, and even stupid. Most Southern Vietnamese people had never seen a television, and rarely left their small village. The American soldiers were not sensitive to the cultural and spiritual differences. For example, it was customary for many Vietnamese men to sleep with a piece of fabric across their stomach for spiritual purposes. American advisors would tease the ARVN officers about this habit, and the ARVN’s request that this fabric be included in with the supplies was denied. These minor misunderstandings added up to cause a rift between the ARVN and those hoping to train them.

Taylor/Rostow report- Kennedy sent Maxwell Taylor and Walter Rostow to Vietnam to give him a report on progress. What came back was not promising. The ARVN had a defensive outlook, and no ambition for an offensive battle. The report suggested that the US would have to send over at least 8,000 more advisors. Kennedy was hesitant to send any more troops because once involved, he could see no end to the commitment. The first 8,000 would only lead to the necessity for more. Luckily, or not, depending on how you look at it, there was a huge flood in the Mekong delta, so the administration felt as if it could send the 8,000 advisors in the form of flood relief, and remove them without embarrassment if needed.

MAAG-A group of senior soldiers sent to deal with the problem.

1961-1962-US strategy continued to be the optimistic view that the ARVN could be trained to eventually handle things on their own. Although Kennedy did have to send in more advisors, up from 3,205 in 1961, to 9,000 in 1962, the US government tried its best to take the middle road and not to provoke any military action from Russia or China. ARVN morale was steadily sinking, leading to high desertion rates, and many villages were offering relief to the enemy. Diem was beginning to become a problem, too. He needed help from the US, but he was sensitive of looking like a puppet to US demands. He would make decisions without consulting the US, and America would return the favor. As a way to control Diem, the US notified him that it would send no further aid until Diem agreed to government reform and involving the United States in his decisions. Although both sides agreed to collusion, neither followed through, and they often worked against each other.

Diem, a Growing Problem- Diem came from a successful Catholic family, and had never rubbed shoulders with the average peasant villager that made up the majority of South Vietnam. He was more concerned with loyalty in his administration, and would appoint a person whose only qualification was that he were friend or family. This made for a government that was inept, inefficient, and corrupt. Diem’s brother and his brother’s wife were becoming the biggest problem of all. Neither had any regard for the common people of the country, and when the Buddhist monks began lighting themselves on fire in protest of the Catholic government, Diem’s sister-in-law made heartless remarks about a barbeque.

By yanam49

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