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The Vietnam War: a not so Cold War

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Image credit: http://www.rugusavay.com

Vietnam has a long history of wars. Some thousand years ago China invaded Vietnam for the first time. During the centuries Chinese and Vietnamese fought over who would control the land. When the Vietnamese were finally free from the Chinese rule, the French arrived to colonise Vietnam for a century. During World War II Japan occupied Vietnam for four years. At the end of the War, Japan surrendered on 2 September 1945 to USA and their allies. On the same day, Ho Chi Minh announced the creation of a new independent country known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. But this, as will be discussed didn’t mean Vietnam automatically had its Independence (Brawley, 2005).

This essay will examine the American phase of the Vietnam War in 1954 -1975. In that period the Vietnam war was a Proxy war, a conflict of ideologies between Communism as represented by North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh [and with the support of its ideological allies such as China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)] and Capitalism, represented by South Vietnam and their allies such as the USA, France, Australia and Great Britian. The Vietnam War wasn’t a cold war but really a ‘hot war’ which had been shaped from the Cold War – a battle between Capitalist and Communist ideologies.

At the end of World War II Japan surrendered to the USA, Great Britain and their allies. At this time, Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietnamese group known as Viet Minh, declared independence from France and Japan. Ho Chi Minh was armed with strong convictions, and was determined to lead a revolution to liberate his country or die trying. He was determined to organize a guerrilla movement that would drive away from his country the imperialist power of France who had attempted to come back in 1945 and exercise power in Vietnam (Hauptly, 1985).

France was openly hostile to Vietnamese independence, and the growing tension between Vietnam and France resulted in an escalation of hostilities (Edward,1988). As Michael Burgan (2005) mentioned in The Vietnam War:

‘French ignored Ho’s declaration of independence, though they signed an agreement with the Viet Minh in March 1946 that would make Vietnam a so-called ‘free state’ within France’s empire’ (p.10).

According to most analyses, the USA’s interest in becoming involved in Vietnam was shaped by the ‘Cold War’. In the 1950s, Communism seemed to be spreading rapidly. Mao Zedong had taken control in China and he had received aid from the USSR as an ally. In another sphere, the USSR backed up an invasion of South Korea by Communist North Korea. This was the beginning of the Korean War of 1950-1953. These two events convinced successive governments of the USA to be worried about the threat of the USSR’s domination in Asia and the subsequent spread of Communist ideologies (Higgins, 1982).

When the French returned to Vietnam, the USA backed them up, paying for almost 80 per cent of the war effort (Burgan, 2005). It was part of the USA’s strategy of containment, or blocking the spread of communism. One of the theories that supported the strategy known as the ‘domino theory’, proposed that if one South-east Asian nation came under Communist control, its own neighbours would too. This was a major factor in the decision for the USA’s influence and interference in the political tensions in Vietnam (Wiest, 2002).

In 1954, Vietnam finally defeated their French colonisers. It was a spectacular victory for Vietnam and its people lead by Ho Chi Minh’s a communist who followed Lenin’s ideology to liberating his people form colonialism. He’s leadership contributed greatly to this victory (Diamond, 2005). According to historian Chris Diamond, the Vietnamese believed that Ho was the most responsible person for the liberation and unification of Vietnam, that’s why many of them supported him. But other historians, like Hugh Higgins have a different opinion. According to Higgins (1982), Ho Chi Minh had a tendency to become a dictator due to the Communist ideology he was following.

Having lost to the Japanese in Vietnam, France was now ready to negotiate with Ho Chi Minh. They agreed to a peace conference in Geneva, Switzerland in May of 1954, finally ending up with an agreement, which would divide Vietnam in half at the seventeenth parallel. The Geneva Peace Agreement left the victorious Ho Chi Minh in control of North Vietnam. After 1954, Ho and the Communist Party concentrated on building a Socialist state in North Vietnam. During this time, the US helped install anti-communist dictator Ngo Dinh Diem as a leader in the South Vietnam. In July 1956, Ho Chi Minh had made good his promise to end foreign intervention and elections were due to be held throughout a reunited Vietnam under the terms of The Geneva Peace Treaty. Due to US intervention in cooperation with Ho’s opponent in South Vietnam these elections did not happen. Diem rejected the election four days before they were due to take place (Diamond, 2012).

Ho Chi Minh protested, but he seems to have already known what the International Control Commission set up by the Geneva agreements later publicly stated: the Geneva agreements were ultimately a failure. The results were a long and destructive war between the North and South of Vietnam. Diem, with US backing, was confident and made the most of this support to reign and exercise power in South Vietnam. To protect his government, Diem made a commitment to kill the Viet Minh, members of the Vietnam Independence League and their supporters in South Vietnam. In 1959, Ho Chi Minh decided the Viet Minh should fight back and began a guerrilla war against Diem’s force. Ho supported the Communist fighters in South Vietnam called Vietcong (VC), and during the following years he organised the National Liberation Front (NLF). This group consisted of both Communists and Non-Communists who opposed Diem (Burgan, 2005).

Political tension in South Vietnam increased. The fight against Diem were intensified. In 1960 the South Vietnamese veterans of the ‘Resistance Association’ also declared that they were fighting to end the fascist dictatorship of the Diem family, and set up a democratic government of national union in South Vietnam (Higgins, 1982).

This situation did not make the US government cease military aid to South Vietnam. In 1961, the US Government under the Kennedy administration, decided to increase American military efforts in Vietnam and by 1963 the United States was an active military force in Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Buddhist majority communities in South Vietnam were becoming more active in their opposition to Diem and gave their support to Ho Chi Minh in the North. The street protests continued, and on June 11, 1963 a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Due sat down on a Saigon street. He poured gasoline over himself, and set himself on fire as a protest against the Diem regime. But Diem ignored the incidents and did not appreciate that the people’s problems were real and had to be solved (Hauptly, 1985).

This incident lead to decreased support and opportunity for the Diem government to continue to exercise power in South Vietnam. In America, many citizens protested against the Diem regime and demanded a stop to the war in Vietnam. The US government also announced the suspension of aid to the Diem regime, and assisted in the overthrow of Diem by coup, because Diem was by now considered to be a difficult ally and could not enhance the attempted US policy to contain the spread of Communism in South Vietnam. Sean Brawley states in, Conflict in Indochina, that on 1 November 1963, elements of the Army of Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) or the South Vietnam Army who had assistance from US, attacked forces loyal to Diem and surrounded the Presidential Palace, and finally on 2 November, Diem and his brother were captured and murdered (Brawley, 2005).

Three weeks later, on 22 November 1963, John F Kennedy was assassinated, and the Vice President Lyndon B Johnson took over government administration of the US. Johnson maintained Kennedy’s aid and the commitment to prevent a Communist take over in South Vietnam, and the North Vietnamese were identified as the most urgent danger to US dominance in Vietnam (Higgins, 1988). The US government’s aim was for Vietnam to be a capitalist ally. In this period, the war worsened. The leaders in the US army ordered massive bombing raids against North Vietnam, such us bombing of Hanoi, the capital city of North Vietnam and supply route from the North, called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which aided the Viet Cong in the South. This trail had been built by civilians using shovels and their bare hands, and the trail itself had several different routes that stretched for a total 16.000 km that confused the US army, making it difficult to beat the VC and the NLV (Burgan, 2005).

In 1967 Johnson faced criticism after a massive Communist attack to South Vietnam in which thousands of civilians were massacred. The positive result after this attacked was that more Americans sensed that the US was losing the war, even though US officials reported the opposite. The anti-war movement became increasingly strong against American foreign policy towards Vietnam (Edward, 1986). In May 1968 peace talks began in Paris between North Vietnam, South Vietnamese and the US to respect the demilitarised zone and curb North Vietnam attacks on South Vietnam. Ho agreed to the talks, in part to stop US bombing. But when delegates finally gathered in Paris, a disagreement broke out (Brawley, 2005).

In January 1969 Richard Nixon became President of the United States of America. He promised America that Communism in Vietnam would be defeated and ending US interference. He began a policy called Vietnamization, through which the US gave more aid – both money and weapons – to South Vietnam. Nixon continued the bombing of North Vietnam and even bases in Cambodia. Meanwhile in the US, new demonstrations followed the invasion of Cambodia. On May 1970, at Kent State University, Ohio National Guard troops killed four students, which led to even greater anti-war protests (Wiest, 2002). In 1970, Henry Kissinger the US National Security Adviser talked with both China and the USSR, the countries known to support North Vietnam. He was hoping to improve relations with those two Communist nations. After Nixon’s trip in 1972 to both countries, China and the USSR began to pressure North Vietnam to end the war (Burgan, 2002).

On September 2, 1969. Ho Chi Minh died in Hanoi. Two-thirds of his seventy-nine years had been spent in trying to free his country from foreign control and then to unite its parts. Ho died at the very moment when one could begin to see an end to the war that was the center of his life. Prior to his death, Ho Chi Minh had arranged with the then President, Richard Nixon for private and secret peace talks to take place between their two nations. These took place in Paris in September 1972. Le Due Tho represented North Vietnam and Nixon’s National Security Advisor (and later Secretary of State), Henry Kissinger, represented the United States. After a long period, finally in 1975 the war was over, Vietnam had been reunified and was under Communist control.

Vietnam has a long history of conflict. The involvement and interference of the USA at every stage in Vietnam during the period from 1954 to 1975 made it a ‘Proxy War’, or a conflict of ideologies between Communism and Capitalism. Many nations were involved, particularly countries who embraced one of the two ideologies involved: the US with her allies, such us Great Britain, France, Australia and South Vietnam versus China, the USSR, and North Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh, had an important role in the Vietnam War even after his death, until Vietnam’s independence and reunification in 1975. The ferocity by which it was fought and the many interests involved in the Vietnam War made it really a ‘hot war’, which had been shaped from the overarching Cold War.




Brawley, Sean, Dixon, Chris, Green, Jeffrey, 2005, Conflict in Indochina, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne.

This book has been very useful for my research. It clearly explains how the Vietnam War started and seemed to be a proxy war, shaped by the Cold War following World War II.

Burgan, Michael, 2004, Witness to History: The Vietnam War, Heinemann Library, London. I used this book a lot as my reference.

Even though the data that Burgan provide in his book is a bit brief, this book is another resource that has given me more understanding about the Vietnam War through contemporary eyes.

Diamon, Chris, 2012, Ho Chi Minh Biography: Secrets of His Life During The Vietnam War, iBooks. https://itun.es/au/UQ9H1.l

Edwards, Richard, 1986, The Vietnam War, Wayland Ltd, Hove, East Sussex

Hauptly, Denis J, 1985, In Vietnam, Collier Macmillian, iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/au/book/in-vietnam/id537241918?mt=11

Higgins, Hugh, 1982, Vietnam, (2nd Ed.) Heinemann Educational Books, London

Wiest, Andrew, 2002, The Vietnam War 1956-1975, Osprey Publishing, New York

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