A history of Vietnam researched and written by Kenton Scott, USN, in 1970 during his tour with AFLS in Saigon, Vietnam. This document may help you understand why one of Kenton's Vietnamese students told him: "We hate the VC, our own government and the US; in that order".


From the beginning to the Tet Offensive

Early Regional Struggles

From the beginning of recorded Vietnamese history, there has been a struggle with neighboring cultures to resist subjugation by others and simultaneously subjugate other cultures. But a nationalistic worldview was forged from its earliest days.

According to Vietnamese legend, Lac Hong founded the race, about 4,000 years ago. No actual trace can be found until approximately 500 B.C. with a tribe named "Van Long" The Vietnamese claim this tribe to be their ancestors, but then the tribe was assimilated into a larger one called Nam Viet. The Nam Viets lived in the Northern section of what is now Viet Nam and southern China.

The Nam Viets were annexed by China in 207 B.C. but held out against them for almost one hundred years until 111 B.C. when they went under Chinese control. This protectorate lasted for about one hundred years. The Chinese demanded labor, tribute, and recruits from this holding.

In 39 A.D. the Vietnamese staged an uprising. Two sisters by the name of Trung set up an army and successfully drove the Chinese out. They formed a kingdom which lasted little more than two years. The Chinese again returned and defeated them. The two sisters committed suicide by drowning, and the Chinese ousted the local rulers, and transformed Viet Nam into a Chinese colony.

By 187, under the governorship of a Chinese named Che Sie, Viet Nam was independent of China except for the payment of tribute. But the Vietnamese were not satisfied with this arrangement, being then as now nationalistic and anti-assimilation. In 248 they attempted another revolt, again led by a woman, Twenty-three-year-old Trieu Au, however, it was not successful. Then in 542, Ly Bon drove the Chinese out. The Chinese conquered the Vietnamese again two years later.

Finally, in 939, under the leadership of Ngo Quyen, they managed to release the shackles of Chinese domination, in a battle in which they placed sharpened poles under enemy ships while they were tied at docks. When low tide came in, the poles punctured the ships.

In 981, the Vietnamese leader Le Hoan repelled another Chinese attacker. Then turned around and attempted to conquer the people in the South – the Chams, with limited success.

From 1009 to 1225, the Le dynasty ruled the Vietnamese who moved the capital to Hanoi. In 1089 they established the Mandarin system.

Kublai Khan and his Mongols tried to take the country in 1284, and in 1287 a variation of placing poles under enemy ships was again tried. Poles were set in the water and General Tran Hung Dao had his ships draw the Mongol’s ships over the area where the poles were. The Vietnamese then quit retreating and engaged the Mongol ship, until the tide lowered and punctured the enemy ships.

In 1312, the Vietnamese renewed their aggression on the Chams driving them out of the South. But the Cham retaliated, driving Vietnamese back and plundering Hanoi.

Weakened by battle, the Chinese temporarily defeated the Vietnamese in 1406. Led by king Le Loi (who later changed his name to Le Thai To), the Vietnamese battled the Chinese from 1418 to victory in 1428. The Cham were finally defeated and driven out in 1471 by king Le Thanh Tong.

For the next 250 years, the Vietnamese had the misfortune of having inept rulers; between 1504 and 1527 there were a total of eight different rulers.

In 1527, king Mac Dang Dung instead of fighting invading Chinese armies decided to invite them in.

In 1535, the first European explorers arrived in Viet Nam. Although, insignificant as the Portuguese arrival was, it marked the fact that western powers would have a profound effect on Viet Nam.

In 1540, Nguyen Kim attempted with the help of Laos and the Southern part of Viet Nam, to overthrow the Mac. The war continued until 1592 when the country was temporarily unified. In 1613 the country was split with the Nguyen family ruling the South and the Trinh ruling the North. The North (capitol Hanoi) attempted to conquer the South (capitol Hue) from 1627 to 1673, but with no success. They formed a truce, which lasted for one hundred years. The South then continued its southward expansion into what is now South Viet Nam what was then Cambodia. The Cambodians in the area were weak and the Vietnamese were able to capture the land including the Cambodian city of Saigon.

Contact with the West

Western powers came to Viet Nam, and gradually replaced regional struggles with struggles with Colonialism.

The 17th Century marked the arrival of the western powers the Dutch 1636, the French in 1669, the British in 1672.

In 1772, three brothers Nguyen Nhoc, Nguyen Lu and Nguyen Hue initiated the Tay Son Rebellion attempting to overthrow the Nguyen rulers in the south. The North, inspired by internal turmoil in the South decided to attack the South in 1774. The South fell in 1777 to the Tay Son. The Southern ruler Nguyen Anh fled to Siam (Thailand). To regain his throne, he returned to Saigon, but the Tay Son thwarted his efforts and in 1784, he was forced to return to Siam. In Siam, Nguyen Anh asked a French priest to take his son and return to France to plead for military aid. In the meantime, Hanoi fell to the Tay Son. The French refused to help Nguyen Anh, sending missionaries instead. Therefore, Nguyen Anh decided to fight alone. And in 1802, the Tay Son fell, and Viet Nam was united once again. Nguyen Anh (who changed his name to Gia Long) officially named the country Viet Nam.

During the period between 1817 and 1831 France tried through diplomatic means to further trade but met with little success. Minh Mang, the new ruler, while producing needed reform in the Vietnamese government, wasted little love on the French missionaries. The suppression the missionaries endured caused them to apply to France for military intervention. The main voice for the missionaries was Lefebure. The Vietnamese arrested him and had him deported, but in 1846 he returned, and he was again arrested. The Admiral of the French Navy, in response attacked Da Nang (Tourane) not knowing that Lefebure moved to Singapore. After his attack, he left, leaving the other missionaries in the hands of the Vietnamese.

Tu Duc (1848-1883), the last independent Vietnamese Emperor, decided to frighten the missionaries out of Viet Nam. He had three executed. In response, Admiral Montigny bungled a poorly coordinated attack on Da Nang. He then threatened punitive action if persecution did not stop - and left.

1857, France decided that it must enter the race for colonies. It did not want to become a second-rate power. So, they attacked Da Nang again, this time they were victorious. Admiral Genouilly then decided to take Saigon, which he accomplished. Getting no support from the Vietnamese, life was anything but easy and the climate and disease began to take its toll. In addition, Vietnamese resistance was increasing. Adm. Page, who relieved Genouilly, unsuccessfully attempted negotiations, and control of Da Nang was given up and the hold on Saigon weakened. In 1861, more troops were sent in and in 1862, a treaty was signed giving France control of Saigon and the surrounding area. Tu Duc signed the treaty because he had to concentrate his troops in the North to put down a Catholic Rebellion. France in return for the treaty, decided not to help the Catholics, which demonstrates the shift in France’s purposes in Viet Nam.

The Vietnamese Monarchy also showed signs of decline. The Mandarin system proved inefficient and ineffective in resistance to the French. Tu Duc also desperately needed money, so he lifted the ban on opium and sold public offices. In 1863, Tu Duc agreed to a French protectorate over all of Cochin China (Southern third of Viet Nam), And by 1867 France controlled all of Cochin China despite the resistance of Phan Thanh Gian. In 1872, France attacked Hanoi, and held it for two years before losing it again. They tried again in 1882 and this time kept it after 12 years of slaughter. In 1883, they shelled Hue - the capitol of Viet Nam. This marked the end of Vietnamese independence, although France gained little from this fact. There was no peace, cooperation, or most importantly economic gain. Viet Nam was divided into three areas. Cochin China (South), Annam (middle), and Tonkin (North).

French Colonization

France eliminated Vietnamese independence, but not the continuing struggles for their national identity. Viet Nam became a source of riches for the French. French profits and sensibilities determined Vietnamese social controls and values.

Ham Nghi, the 12-year-old emperor served as a symbol for a bloody insurrection, until the French captured him in 1888. Vietnamese hero, Phan Dinh Phung killed the betrayer, but the Vietnamese treasury had already been captured, which was supposed to support the insurrection. The Scholar’s Revolt where Vietnamese scholars attempted to continue the insurrection, lasted for three years until Vietnamese Catholics betrayed them. Phan Dinh Phung tried once more between 1893- 1895.

In 1896, Doumer became governor of Viet Nam. His intention was to transform the economy and centralize the government. To obtain central power, he eliminated the remaining Vietnamese administrators. By 1898, the French were collecting all taxes. He did not attempt to abolish the sectioning of Viet Nam for economic reasons. Cochin China was the only section that operating in the black, and France had to cover the debts incurring in the other sections. If Viet Nam would have been reunited, it would have reduced the exorbitant profits the French businessmen were making in Cochin China.

Doumer wanted a railroad. He wanted two lines, one to run from Haiphong to Yunnan China and the other from Saigon to Hanoi. He did not realize that a railroad in Viet Nam would have little to haul, not enough to pay for itself. He wanted it done in a great hurry, consequently mistakes were made, and it was poorly constructed. He taxed the Vietnamese for his railroad, and practically had slave labor conditions. The workers were so mistreated that 25,000 out of 80,000 died. After Doumer left, the railroad project stalled, and was not completed until 1936. He created monopolies on opium, liquor, and salt. The Vietnamese used liquor in their religious ceremonies. To sell their own products, the French made it illegal for them to make their own rice wine, then charged unaffordable prices for the French products. Accordingly, the sales declined. So, they made a regulation requiring each province to purchase their quota, whether they used it or not. Opium although it brought large profits, because few Vietnamese used it, created less of a problem. Of the 85,000 users out of a population of twenty million 60,000 were Chinese. Salt of the other hand is necessary part of the Vietnamese diet. Consequently, a high prohibitive price plus irregular distribution clearly affected all Vietnamese. The price of salt between 1879 and 1907 multiplied fivefold. Income tax doubled for the Vietnamese. The French, who controlled all the money, paid almost no taxes. One unquestionable development Doumer made was the founding of scientific institutions.

In 1902, Doumer was replaced by Beau. Beau primary contributions were in the fields of education and medicine, but he did little to appease the growing nationalism of the Vietnamese.

At this time Phan Boi Chau, a scholar refused appointment to an administrative post and announced he was going to devote his life to fighting French rule. In fact, he did lead the resistance until World War I. Phan Chau Trinh, spokesperson for the Vietnamese demanded reforms but was ignored. Emperor Thanh Thai asked for reforms and was dethroned, declared insane and deported.

Education in Viet Nam before the French occupation had seriously declined, but with the French it had nearly ground to a standstill. Beau laid groundwork for the development of the University of Hanoi. He sent the best Vietnamese students to Paris to study and combined Eastern and Western subjects in the curriculum. But the colonists were afraid of "educated natives" and the Vietnamese became bolder. They became convinced after Japanese victory over Russia (1905) that to be able to assert themselves against the west, they had to first learn Western technology.

School leaders praised engineering and chemistry as the paths to freedom. Therefore, the French closed the Tonkin school, and the teachers arrested. A purge of nationalists followed in which hundreds were killed. Beau left in 1908. In 1908 Klubukowski became governor. He closed the University of Hanoi and the Directorate of Public Education.

In 1911, Saaraut became governor. He favored Education and increased the number of schools in all of Indochina to six, but three were reserved for French children. The University of Hanoi remained closed.

Students wanting to go to Paris to study had to go through Vietnamese schools twice before going. Therefore, they were about 30 years old before they got their degree. He set up libraries and preserved national monuments, but he also pushed the sale of liquor and opium by setting up opium houses and bars where he felt there were not enough. During World War I, he shipped 140,000 Vietnamese to fight for the French.

In 1913, there was a demonstration in Saigon, 245 were arrested. Sixty-four tried and dozens killed. As resistance got stronger, suppression became increasingly cruel. During the 1920's the French held major positions of control and the minor ones usually by the French or Chinese. In 1924, the first communist party was formed and in 1927 the non-communist VNQDD formed. In 1925 a religious sect, the Cao Dai, was formed. This strange sect is a combination of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Western philosophy, and modern spiritualism. It claimed 1.5 million members by 1954 and became a major political sect. It exploited religion to support political views. Before the French arrived the export of rice was not allowed, instead it was sent North where the often-insufficient production needed it or it was stored for leaner years, but now the peasant was in a delicate situation.

Ho Chi Minh and Communism

Uncle Ho represented a remedy to end French exploitation, and a path to establish a Vietnamese nation. Ho Chi Min was trained in Communist philosophy which he used to structure his movement, but to the people, communism was just a tool to use to get to independence.

In 1930, Ho Chi Minh formed a unified communist party. Communism succeeded in Viet Nam because colonial capitalism was a primitive sort of capitalism, it combined all the evils and exploitation without the blessings of the more developed forms. Labor unions were not allowed. It was a natural situation for the classic Marxist predictions to validate themselves. Plus, the fact that the Vietnamese tended to lump together anti-colonial and anti-capitalistic feelings together. The communists had a head start because they had been trained in revolutionary action in China and Russia, had a workable political strategy for mass action and because they emphasized nationalism and anti-imperialism. It is ironic that the French, the staunch supporters of democracy, freedom and independence could not see the same needs and values in their territorial holdings and would not allow labor unions or a strong middle class develop.

1930 brought the year of the Red Terror. In Northern Annam, hundreds of communist led demonstrators were killed. Peasants in Nghe An, Ha Tinh, and Quang Ngai destroyed the local French government and set up their own. 1931 brought the year of the White Terror. To suppress the communistic movements, the French resorted to terror tactics. They killed an estimated 10,000 and deported 50,000, There were no actual battles, the Vietnamese were chased, hunted, and slaughtered.

In 1932, Bao Dai, then 13 years old, returned to Viet Nam from France to take the throne. He took the reins of government from the mandarins for himself. He was not successful as a leader, but economic prosperity of the time temporarily soothed the Vietnamese.

Rubber Plantations were successfully set up in 1898 but not until 1907 were they seriously developed. By 1925, they were very prosperous, making the French owners the richest men in Viet Nam. By 1939 there were eight hundred plantations, nineteen of which grew two-thirds of the rubber. Production stopped during World War II, started up again and stopped again with the conflict between the Viet Minh and the French. Vietnamese labor, called coolies, operated the plantations, and needed 20,000 forced laborers. The laborers could only survive for a few years since there was much disease and four times the normal death rate. The rubber was not processed in Viet Nam (nor were industries for chemicals, paper, glass, fertilizer, silk, jute, cotton, or ramie all of which could have been successful). The French were afraid of creating a politically active middle class. Also, the rich colonists did not want to lose their own power and traders did not want to lose the markets for their French produced goods.


World War II brought a new aggressor to the shores of Viet Nam. Like those that preceded them, the Japanese exploited, suppressed, and abused the Vietnamese people.

World War II came to Viet Nam in 1939, when the Japanese arrived. The colonists shipped profitable war supplies to China, consequently, the Japanese bombed the railroad. The colonists wanted French troops to protect the North from the Japanese, but France needed troops more desperately at home. Therefore, the colonists decided to make friends of the Vietnamese through reforms, primarily of a military nature. They started a national army, created military schools, and provided more boats and planes. But also, France needed more war materials from Viet Nam. Therefore, they increased working hours. The Japanese exacerbated the problem by stealing the goods the Vietnamese shipped.

1940, the Japanese demanded that the colonists stop shipping war materials to China. A Japanese mission came to Tonkin to ensure that trade stopped. Although the French governor Catrous accepted the demand, the Japanese decided to teach the French a lesson. They attacked Dong Dang and Lang Son and bombed Haiphong. Satisfied, the Japanese told the French that the attack was all an error and gave back all the land gained. The Japanese allowed the French to-rule as long as it served their best interests. All exports had to go to Japan. And in return, Viet Nam was supposed to get things they no longer got from France from Japan. Unfortunately, Japan soon needed all its own resources, so Viet Nam was left out.

The nationalists encouraged by the Japanese initiated an insurrection. The French cruelly put it down. Although powerless against the Japanese, the French were tough on the Vietnamese.

Viet Minh

The Viet Minh was a weaponized force that Ho Chi Minh used to lead resistance in the country. As diplomatic means proved ineffective, the Viet Minh launched into a war of resistance.

When in 1939, Hitler attacked Russia, the communists suddenly turned pro-Allied deciding that Japan was the primary enemy. They became pro-American when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. 1941 also saw Japanese troops occupy Viet Nam and Ho Chi Minh formed the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh helped American flyers downed in Viet Nam and along with the Chinese and were sources of intelligence. President Roosevelt's statements that the French ought to leave Viet Nam further aided relations.

De Gaulle told Troops in Viet Nam to attack the Japanese in a token resistance, The Japanese found out about the plan and demanded control of the French troops. They waited an hour, when they got no response, so they assumed the negative and immediately disarmed and interned the French troops. The Japanese made Bao Dai the puppet head of the government.

Through all the time and conflicts, the French were still unable to see that the Vietnamese desired freedom. They never considered that Viet Nam would 1) be in control of the country after the war, 2) they never doubted that they would willingly return control to France. In March of 1945, the French stated their intention to maintain Viet Nam as they did before the war.

On Aug. 18, 1945, Ho Chi Minh became the popular leader of Viet Nam. Bao Dai willingly gave up the throne. With the Japanese defeat, the conflict in Viet Nam took on a new aspect. France and Ho Chi Minh's government conducted talks to ally against a possible new enemy - China. The Allied decision (at Potsdam) on how to disarm Japan confirmed those fears when the Chinese oversaw the disarming of the North and Britain of the South. France’s other worry about return of control of Viet Nam them was less of a concern because Roosevelt was now dead.

The nationalists in the South took a non-communist stance but Ho was able to sway them to his authority by telling them that the Allies accepted his government while theirs was not. The people of the South were pleased with this new government. Ho decided that this was not the time to fight the French return because there would be no way to selectively keep the French out and not the British; and opposition to both would bring Allied retaliation.

Things went poorly for Ho in the south. He wanted a stable government in the South, but it was anything but stable because of conflict between political sects. Also, British General Gracey supported the re-occupation by France. He frequently violated his orders to not get involved in the internal affairs of Viet Nam. He helped the French kick the Vietnamese out of government positions. He told the Japanese troops to police Saigon and control the Vietnamese, which was in violation of the Potsdam Decision. He announced there would be no negotiations with the Vietnamese until they restored order, secured the newspapers, made the Vietnamese police an ancillary of the British Army and declared Martial Law.

The French troops were released from prison after having been imprisoned by the Japanese. The freed troops rampaged through the city beating Vietnamese and terrorizing them brutally. Gracey ordered all this outrage to stop, confined the troops to quarters and sent out French paratroops to restore order. In response to this attack, the Vietnamese staged a counter offensive. Iin order to maintain control, Gracey ordered the Japanese to effectively control the Vietnamese, or he would have the Japanese General tried as a war criminal. Consequently, Japanese-Vietnamese confrontations became were quite common resulting in arrests and slayings.

In the North, the Chinese sympathized with the Vietnamese position against the French. While the Chinese occupied the North, they would allow no French troops to enter. There were few Americans in the North at this time and the French over-estimated their influence on the Chinese. Nevertheless, they were angry at America for supporting the Chinese in keeping the French out.

The support the Viet Minh enjoyed was not based on their communistic position. Few knew that it was communist led and none cared. Ho was simply their liberator. Ho proclaimed Independence, talked only of nationalism and democracy. He did away with the opium, liquor, and salt monopolies and made more educational advances in one year than the French did in sixty years, including reopening the University of Hanoi. The people, on the other hand, opposed the coming of the Chinese for fear of the traditional occupation. Ho himself had mixed feelings. Ho knew the Chinese would keep the French out and that they were allowing his rule, but he was afraid that they might prefer someone who would serve as their puppet. As they entered Viet Nam, the Chinese demonstrated reasons for fear, as they Viet Nam ousted the Viet Minh officials and replaced them with who they preferred.

In 1946, France and China negotiated, and the Chinese armies were to leave by March. To try to manage the outcome, Ho decided to negotiate with the French. French troops were to remain in Viet Nam pending recognition as a free state with its own government, army, finances. A referendum was scheduled to decide whether to reunite Cochin China. The French in turn promised to withdraw its troops by 1952 and the Viet Minh would stop their guerrilla action. Both sides talked of peace but prepared for war.

The policy of the French governor, de'Argenlieu, however, was to deny the Vietnamese's nationalistic demands, undo the gains made, use force when possible and chuck the referendum on Cochin China. Ho, hoping for better results requested talks in Paris, de'Argenlieu denied them for the same reason. Instead, he held a pre-conference in Dalat. The conference was a farce. There were no Frenchmen with any political authority. Ho's delegate (and military leader) Vo Nguyen Giap, because of the conference, decided to be prepared for war.

Finally, Ho succeeded in scheduling a conference in Paris. While Ho was on the way to Paris, de'Argenlieu claimed the high­lands and Cochin China as French protectorates. Ho was desperately trying to save the conference, while de'Argenlieu was just as determinably trying to wreak it. Because of a French change in government, they postponed the conference for better than a month. To Ho's disgust, his delegation of Viet Nam's best was met by France's worst - the generally the same people he conferred with at Dalat. De’Argenlieu, not satisfied that he had done enough, held a counter conference in Dalat, and the Hanoi government was not represented.

War seemed only a matter of time. But at the end, Ho reversed his position and accepted all the French demands and made no Vietnamese gains. This was a stall for time to increase the military capability and hope for another change in French government, one that would be more favorable.

In preparation for war, Ho began to suppress his opposition, he did not want to share his power, especially in war. He imprisoned or killed off those opposing. The French began collecting taxes from French nationals (against the agreement), set up a French postal service and took over the collection of duties. On Oct. 27, the French made a constitution for Viet Nam without contact or approval of Ho. On Nov. 20, the French caught a Chinese boat carrying contraband. The Viet Minh intercepted the French boat and took the French prisoners. The French authorities decided to fight to get their men back. They warned the Viet Minh that they had two hours to get out of Haiphong. After 2 hours were up, they contacted the Viet Minh, who said they were waiting for instructions from Hanoi. After waiting 45 more minutes the French assumed the negative and attacked with infantry, tanks, artillery, planes, and naval guns; killing an estimated 20,000 Vietnamese. The French position by this time was abundantly clear, they were pushing for war.

On Dec 15, Ho sent a message of reasonable demands to Paris, but because of the reasonableness of the demands, Saigon held the message up. On the 19th of Dec., the French demanded the disarming of Vietnamese police, and control given over to them. Ho pleaded not to force this demand. The French intended to militarily force their demand. Therefore, Viet Minh attacked, and the war was under way.

The war at first was difficult for Ho. His troops retreated after losing Hanoi to the mountains of Viet Bac. He soon learned he could expect no outside help. Paris agreed with Saigon and the Saigon press releases were fabricated to say what the French wanted. French claimed that they were only fighting to keep Viet Nam from becoming communist. French General Jean de Lattre de’Trassegny said, “not since the crusades, has France undertaken such a disinterested action. This war is the war of Viet Nam for Viet Nam.”

For France to be able to maintain its "disinterested" position, it needed to provide an actual Vietnamese government and it had to reduce the Viet Minh to only a faction, The French did not realize that there would be no popular approval if the new government did not stand for independence also. The French decided to invent the Bao Dai government, but Bao Dai refused, stating he would not accept such a position without a guarantee of independence.

Vo Nguyen Giap, through using only limited guerrilla attacks, was able to build his army and popular support. His strategy was to maintain regions that contained food, workforce, and minerals, to harass the French strongholds, and immobilize French troops. The French situation in the South was more secure. But the Viet Minh were still able to control the western arm of the Mekong Delta, the Plain of Reeds, Tay Ninh and Baria provinces. They were also able to recruit, tax, collect rice, indoctrinate, and terrorize hostile villages.

The first French offensive came in 1947. With the use of 30,000 troops, they tried to penetrate the Viet Bac, with the plan of destroying Giap's regular army and capturing the leaders. The French took heavy fighting equipment with them, and as a result were confined to the roads. They seldom saw any Viet Minh, but they found plenty of evidence of their presence. The Viet Minh destroyed bridges, planted mines, and burned towns just ahead of them. If French soldiers went after a sniper, they were ambushed. The French found it difficult to keep the lines of communication open and supplies were running low, after postponing the inevitable, they gave up and made the difficult trip back.

In 1948, the French decided on a new battle plan, they would surround the Viet Bac and separate it from the Viet Minh controlled areas. Unfortunately, the Viet Minh continued infiltrating through the French defenses, and French control in the villages continued to decrease. The Viet Minh also continually threatened to cut off the line of communication between Hanoi and Haiphong,

In 1949, Bao Dai had finally weakened and agreed to take control of the government. The only gain he made was to reunite Cochin China. His government was swiftly corrupted.

By 1950, Giap decided to start to take the offense by attacking out-lying posts. The French abandoned Lang Son so quickly that the arms, ammunition, vehicles - enough to equip a division - had to be left to the Viet Minh.

Because of his successes Giap became over-confidant. In 1951, He attacked twelve miles North of Hanoi in a four-day battle, repulsing waves of attackers, but losing six thousand of his best men. Next, he planned to cut off the coal region of Moncay and then attack Haiphong. He gave up the attempt after eight days after losing an additional 3,000 men. Next was the Battle of Day River at Dhu Ly and Ninh Binh. He thought that his action would draw the French troops out of the prosperous Song Hong (Red River) valley. This attempt also failed. Giap, after this series of defeats, needed to rebuild an effective army.

In Oct. of 1952, Giap went into the area between the Red and Black Rivers. He planned to take over Northwest Tonkin, and further disperse French troops. If the French had decided to add support to their troops in the area, they would have to use mobile troops trained offensive action – not defensive. They would have to fly in troops, thereby tying up the Air Force. Instead, the French decided to use all its mobile forces to again attack Viet Bac, hoping Giap would pull his troops out of Tonkin to defend his stronghold, France poured 30,000 troops into the effort, but they again failed to penetrate the Viet Bac and Giap did not withdraw from Tonkin. The French lost 1,200 men trying to take Viet Bac even though they fought no actual battles.

In Nov. 1952, an overconfident Giap attacked Na Sam but the French repulsed him. At the same time his troops took unimportant Dien Bien Phu. In April of 1953, with a few troops left at Na Sam to contain the French, Giap went into Laos. Militarily the invasion had little importance, but it had serious implications to the French. At Muong Khoua where there was a large contingent of French troops, Giap surrounded the camp, so the French had to supply it by air. They did the same thing at the French position of the Plaine de Jarres. Giap had caused the French to need all their Air Transport to supply these out-lying areas. The Viet Minh established the cooperation of the Pathet Lao and helped harvest a valuable opium crop and then returned to Tonkin, leaving only small forces to keep the French positions surrounded. Giap had managed to absorb all French reserves and nullify French offensive action, and unintentionally frightened the French into believing that exceptional military effort was needed to defend Laos.

Many people in Viet Nam including the Viet Minh made money by playing the money market, Franch had pegged the rate of exchange at 17 francs for one piaster. The money manipulators would transfer money to France and have it changed into francs, then they would transfer them back to Viet Nam and sell them to the black market at 7 or 8 francs per piaster. French and Vietnamese Investors suddenly became rich in this manner. The Viet Minh did it to have funds with which to buy war equipment, When the exchange rate was set, it was correct but because of the war the value dropped. France could not devalue without giving up the economic control of Viet Nam and it would have destroyed the little economic stability there was in Viet Nam. Therefore, there was a constant drain of the French economy benefitting only the speculators. In May of 1953, France decided it could not stand the strain any longer, so they devalued. Prices jumped to double what they had been. Suddenly, French control had hurt everyone in Viet Nam which only cemented opinions toward independence.

The French armies, as they went through Viet Nam, took punitive action against villages suspected of supporting the Viet Minh. Any man under 50 years of age risked being shot or "interrogated". To avoid this, many joined the Viet Minh. If a village opposed Viet Minh activity, the guerrillas would place snipers in that village just before the French came. After the French were fired upon, they would slaughter all the men in that village. Of course, the snipers had disappeared.

After the signing of the Korean Armistice in July of 19S3, Chinese aid to the Viet Minh became massive and Giap began a buildup for an attack on Dien Bien Phu, which the French had previously retaken, thinking it would halt invasions of Laos. Vast numbers of porters began to haul supplies into the area around Dien Bien Phu. The Chinese supplied 105MM and 16-37mm anti-aircraft guns, which were placed hidden in caves. There were also 40,000 Viet Minh all invisible to the French. The French had twelve battalions of troops, six fighter bombers, ten tanks, and added six paratroop divisions during the battle. Although the troop strength of the French was less than half that of the Viet Minh, they considered that with the superior equipment to be more than enough. The French did not know of the big guns the Viet Minh had and they assumed that the Viet Minh would be out of supplies after about four days of battle. They hoped that Giap would soon attack, but Giap had other ideas. He sent troops into Laos which took Muong Khuoa, then headed for Luang Prabang. The French therefore sent in five battalions to fortify that position. But Giap had his men suddenly reversed and returned to Dien Bien Phu. Giap had undermined French strategy for holding Dien Bien Phu.

On March 13, 1954, Giap attacked Dien Bien Phu. He used artillery plus wave after wave of suicide infantry attacks. He soon ruined the airstrip making the planes useless. France quickly asked for U.S. military aid.

U.S. Involvement

From the beginning, the U.S. saw Viet Nam as an example of world affairs and never as a unique nation trying to establish its independent place in the world.

In 1947, American Ambassador William Bullitt, said that all the French had to do was to establish cooperation with the Nationalists and eliminate the communists. To end the conflict, the solution was just as simple, get France to promise to eventually give Viet Nam its independence. He further assumed that France would honor such a promise. Naive as it was, it was the basis for U.S. policy until Dien Bien Phu. During 1953, the U.S. defrayed one-half of the war costs for the French. The cost to France was 270 billion Francs and even with U.S. aid in 1953, the cost to the French did not decrease. The U.S. felt that Ho must be defeated - with no negotiations with the communists. It must be a military victory, the Bao Dai solution must be accepted and accepted the concept of independence within the French union accepted. This policy became official after the victory of communism in China.

Dulles in 1953, said that the war was a struggle between a free people and outside aggression. That this was not a colonial war but a war between the free world and communism. In the period leading up to a Geneva Conference, Dulles proclaimed that the U.S. opposed to giving any concessions to the communists.

It is possible that Giap timed the attack of Dian Bien Phu to fully demonstrate how weak the French in Viet Nam were, for it started just before the conference. The aid France asked the U.S. for was just to be able to keep in the fight till after Geneva. This request generated a mixed reaction in the U. S. The men who were afraid that involvement would cause another Korea were relieved that the French wanted so little. Eisenhower assured them that aid would be forth coming. France shocked anti-communist leaders for being willing to compromise. Senator Knowland stated that this compromise solution represented another betrayal of the cause for freedom. In March of 1954 Vice President Nixon and Dulles wanted to avoid compromise at all costs, even if it were necessary to use direct military intervention.

In April of 1954, the U.S. refused to help France. Dulles wanted the war successful completion of the, which would be followed by replacing France’s control with a western coalition under U.S. leadership. On April 26, 1954, Nixon made the statement that except for the existence of communist China, there would be no Vietnamese war. Nixon designed this statement to mislead the uninformed public and was on safe ground for few Americans realized that the French had been fighting the Viet Minh for four years before China had become communist.

Nixon felt that to stop communism in Asia, the U.S. had to act, not only with air strikes as the French requested but "by putting our boys in". The U.S. could support the French, participate in an allied action, or alone if necessary. Eisenhower himself kept reversing his opinion on the matter. On April 29, he denied that there had ever been any proposal to intervene, but in his book, he said he was disappointed when our efforts for a satisfactory method of Allied intervention failed.

Giap overwhelmed Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954, during the Geneva Conference. The conference which took place from April 26 to July 21, was attended by France, Britain, U.S., U.S.S.R., Communist China, Cambodia, Laos, Boa Dai's government and Ho Chi Minh's government. Through the whole conference the U.S. was wildly incoherent - Dulles wanted settlement without concessions to the Viet Minh, expected France to give up control of Indochina and yet to continue the war. First, he promised intervention, then he denied plans for intervention. The main provisions of the agreement were to divide Viet Nam, the Vietnamese were free to move from one section to another before May 18,1955 that the dividing line was a provisional not a territorial line, and that there were to be elections in July of 1956. It was a verbal, unsigned agreement.

On June 19,1954, Bao Dai asked Ngo Dinh Diem to form a new government- giving him full political and military powers. Bao Dai did not care for Diem and only gave him the Presidency because he was sure the new government would fail. Diem was not popular; he was a Catholic (a minority of 10-15% in Viet Nam) and French trained. Diem did not ask for love from the people, only obedience.

The beginning of Diem's rule was a struggle for survival. The Army, police, secret service, and the French and Chinese controllers of the economy opposed him. The people were not communists but felt that the communists got their independence, therefore they deserved the credit. Because of the power of influential people, Diem found that reform was impossible. For example, if he would have suspended taxes, as they “would still have been collected but the collectors would have kept the money.” Democracy seemed impossible because democratic elections would have only benefitted the communists. Therefore, Diem decided to suppress all opposition including army leaders, and the chief of police, Binh Xuyen (formerly the operator of houses of gambling, opium, and prostitution). Binh Xuyen at one time brutally dispersed a pro-government rally.

Diem decided to divide and neutralize his enemies by playing one against another. He was ruthless and unscrupulous in his many-sided intrigues, which were often formulated and controlled by his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. The primary reason Diem was able to remain in power was because of aid given him by the U.S. Washington, confident it knew better than France, how to stop communism. Washington supported Diem and trained his army but did not replace France's economic interests as not being interested in Viet Nam for that reason.

Diem began his war on his influential opposition by buying off as many as he could, which was usually successful. Dao Dai, seeing what Diem was attempting to do, and realizing he just might be successful, attempted to unify the sects. But Eisenhower told him to stay out of it. Inspired, Diem replaced Dinh Xuyen. His new chief of police told Binh Xuyen's men not to circulate in Saigon. Instead, however, Binh Xuyen became more aggressive, so Diem brought in the Army. Fighting broke out and before Diem obtained victory there were hundreds of civilian casualties. Diem's ability to quell this opposition increased Washington’s confidence that Diem might be able to control his country.

A group called the Revolutionary Committee installed itself in the palace. It wanted to ditch the little remaining authority of Bao Dai and influence official policy. Gradually, Diem pushed them out, not wanting to share his power. Diem booted Bao Dai out in Oct. 1955. In an election, Bao Dai ran against Diem. The methods Diem used to ensure his 98.0% victory shocked even the Viet Minh. Out of 540,000 voters in Saigon, 605,000 voted!

Ho, after years of guerrilla fighting and hiding, returned to an enthusiastic Hanoi in Oct of 1954. The situation was not all roses, however. There were about 900,000 refugees heading for the south including Catholics (about 60%), profiteers, officials, professors, students, journalists, and artists.

The times were hard for the people. Ho felt he had to turn the North into a socialist state immediately. He used terrorist tactics to put down popular discontent. Ho rebuilt the country at a high rate of speed. He rebuilt the railroad in 6 months with labor conditions as bad as they had been under the French. Industrial equipment took priority over the needs of the people. He nationalized all French companies, except for two, without compensation. Initially, only high officials had access to goods, medical services, and entertainment. They built about 1,000 factories. To reform agriculture to socialistic terms, Ho eliminated large land holders, by accusing them of crimes and imprisoned, placed in-labor camps, or killed. But he soon discovered that there were not enough truly rich land holders, therefore they had to kill off those who had only slightly larger than average holdings to fill the quota. This continued until 1956 when Ho realized the harmful effects this was having on the general population. Ho renounced the policy as a mistake, but this was not enough to pacify the people who in Nov. of 1956 staged a rebellion. Suppression came swiftly and harshly; arresting or deporting several thousand and 1,000 were killed.

Unlike the North, no serious food problems existed in the South although 50% of the land was owned by landlords who made up 2.5% of the population with 80% of the population working the land as tenant farmers. Diem with the aid of the U.S. succeeded in re-locating 300,000 farming families, which gave Diem a brief period of popular support.

In 1956, Diem drafted a constitution that had few safeguards against dictatorship. In practice, The Diem government ignored even those safeguards. There was not one totalitarian stratagem Ngu did not use to serve his ends. The only thing never attempted was democracy. In public services Diem spent an average of 5O¢ per person per year. In the field of construction, Diem had 47,000 square meters of theaters and dance halls built and 56,000 square meters of churches and pagodas but only 6,500 square meters of hospitals and 5,500 meters of rice mills. During 1956 & 7, Diem's armies went on a man hunt into the countryside killing former Viet Minh.

Consequently, the whole countryside went communist. By 1960 it was obvious that Diem was not using U.S. aid to woo his people. He could not complete his nationalistic revolution until there were radical economic and social reforms. He made the legislature his tool and reduced the press to only blind praise. He boasted of uncensored news but what brother Nhu would do was to tear up any newspaper office that dared print anything uncomplimentary. Diem made sure that only government supporters were elected by allowing no others to run. The elections were meaningless.

In 1960, the National Liberation Front (NLF) was formed, and popular uprisings began with guidance from the North. Washington and Saigon claimed however that it was caused by aggression from the North to deny that it was a civil war. The resistance began as isolated acts of terrorism soon changed into full scale insurrection in the Mekong Delta. Saigon coined the term Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists) to describe the guerrillas.

In 1961; Kennedy sent a mission to decide what to do, Diem's reaction in the Saigon press was to protest American imperialist interference in Vietnamese affairs. No action was taken on the suggested reforms.

In 1962, Tran Le Xuan's (Mme. Nhu or Mrs. Ngo Dinh Nhu) "Family code" was signed into being prohibiting divorce, polygamy, dancing, beauty contests, gambling, fortune-telling, cockfighting, prostitution, use of contraceptives, marital infidelity (being seen in public with a member of the opposite sex constituted infidelity), dancing in private homes and banned what she considered "sentimental songs" to aid the war effort.

Nhu and his wife became the most hated people in Viet Nam. They spied, made arbitrary arrests, and participated in large scale graft. To Diem any opposition was by communists or communist inspired. He punished even mild criticisms. Until 1963, Diem had a steady slow drift from crisis to crisis but after May it became a mad race toward disaster, "like a government trying to commit suicide".

In 1963, in the Battle of Ap Bai, 2500 Vietnamese with automatic rifles, armored amphibious personnel carriers and supported by bombers and helicopters tried to defeat two hundred V.C. who inflicted heavy casualties on the Army, shot down helicopters and managed to escape almost intact. The Americans had taught the Vietnamese how to fight the wrong kind of war, plus the army did not want to lay down their lives for this war. There were many desertions, and morale was low. The officers were incompetent and corrupt, and the troops often had to steal food.

In May of 1963, Diem provoked a clash with the Buddhists. In Hue, the Buddhist religious capital, there was a celebration of Budda's birthday. Previously, the government outlawed religious flags even though Catholics during Christmas just months before had a celebration profuse with flags. The Buddhists demonstrated against the new regulation, so the army dispersed the crowds. First, they tried tear gas, then they fired into the crowd killing nine. In Saigon, Buddhist priests protested demanding those responsible be punished. Diem rejected the demand claiming the nine were killed by a V.C. bomb. On May 30, the Buddhists demonstrated peacefully and began to fast, On June, Thich Quang Duc set fire to himself. Six more monks and one nun followed. Mme. Nhu dismissed the burnings as "barbecues" and hoped for more. Nhu, not to be outdone by his wife, commented "if Buddhists want to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline.” On Aug 21, Diem "settled the problem” by arresting all the monks and nuns he could find. On Aug.24, University of Saigon students demonstrated, demanding Diem resign and 4,000 were jailed. The University and all the secondary schools were closed. Diem and Nhu began to become frantic. They denounced the U.S. for not helping directly and even threatened to negotiate with Hanoi. They cut lines of communication for American officials and reporters. Flight attendants and G.I.s had to smuggle messages out. Even though the CIA still supported Diem, the U.S. decided to drop Diem, not because he was a dictator but because his dictatorship proved ineffective.

The Vietnamese generals decided to form a coup. Washington, although knowing about it, would not stop it. The generals had the Palace surrounded with troops. Nhu called for a countercoup. Instead, his troops supported the coup. Next, he ordered in succession to come to his aid, the chiefs of the provinces, corps commanders, the Civil Guard. Nhu's Republican Youth, and finally Mme. Nhu's Parliamentary Women's Corps. None of them responded. Diem and Nhu fled the Palace and went to Cho Lon. Diem telephoned and offered to surrender. They were apprehended and murdered.

Although advisors to Kennedy wanted to send in combat troops, Kennedy held that the Vietnamese should fight the Vietnamese war, but he did not consider withdrawal. Instead, he sent more advisors (1960 – 800, 1964 - 17,000).

General Duong replaced Diem. He did little except to repeal Diem’s most ridiculous laws. He appointed a new chief of police - Major Xuan. He arrested people, just to free them again after the receipt of a bribe. Old French collaborators made up the council with no peasant or labor representation. Again, the people were disappointed. Yet, U.S. enthusiastically supported the new government. Washington still did not understand the problem and needs of the Vietnamese people. Duong was replaced by General Nguyen who attempted to put through a constitution that would make him absolute dictator. In 1964, Khanh asked the U.S. for support to carry the war to the North.

In America, Johnson was campaigning for the Presidency and continually said that Americans should not fight in Viet Nam. But he hinted at his actual intentions on Sept. 28, 1964, saying "we are not going North and drop bombs at this stage of the game." In the summer of 1964 Khanh was secretly assured that there would be a bombing offensive against the North.

U.S. Intervention

Frustrated with not being able to get Viet Nam to live within the constructs that U.S. policy used to define the situation, Washington decided that direct military action would force Viet Nam to behave according to script.

During Aug. 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin incident afforded Johnson the opportunity to bomb torpedo boat bases and oil storage depots in reprisal for alleged attacks by North Viet Nam torpedo boats on U.S. destroyers. The incident offered Johnson the opportunity to have his policy of escalation unconditionally endorsed by Congress in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against forces of the U.S. and to prevent further aggression.” Johnson considered this a blank check.

On Oct 1964 Johnson secretly made the decision to bomb the North Mainland. Later asked why he decided to bomb the North, Rusk replied that the North Vietnamese 325th Division had infiltrated into the South before the decision was made. But in Feb. of 1965 there were only small groups (400-500) of "advisors" from the North in South Viet Nam, which was less than the 17,000 U.S. "advisors" in the South. This appears to have been an intentional deception of the U.S. public. In 1965, communist forces in South Viet Nam numbered 140,000 with only 400-500 North Vietnamese. The "presence" of the 325th was also the excuse for the U.S. buildup of 3,500 Marines which brought the number of U.S. troops in Viet Nam to 75,000 by July. The real reason for the buildup was because Saigon was on the verge of collapse.

In 1966, South Vietnamese army's desertion rate was up to 10,000 per month. U.S. intervention had saved the Saigon government, but it did not aid the war. Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky had taken over the government. In one statement, he embarrassed the U.S. government by saying that Hitler was his hero. In March 1966, Buddhist opposition could only be suppressed with active U.S. help. Every manifestation by the people since Diem had had nationalistic tendencies, a desire for peace, and reservations on American policy and presence. The people felt it was a civil war and that a compromise solution was necessary, but the U.S. felt it was a war of aggression and that a military victory was necessary first.

Because the government controlled the sale of newsprint, Ky was able to suppress the newspapers.

The 1966 election barred the Buddhist slate. The students and Buddhists protested and demanded the annulment of the election results. A committee of the Constituent Assembly (16-2) accepted the demand, but the full Assembly nevertheless accepted the election result (58-43) in the presence of a strong police force. Ky won with only 35% of the votes. The election was held only in areas free of VC so only 56% of the population voted. Therefore, less than 20% of the population voted for Ky.

The V.C. in 1967, even after the bombing and buildup, were stronger than they were in 1965.

Resistance in the U.S. was growing stronger, and while Johnson could afford to ignore students, professors, writers, doctors, etc., Congress was another matter. Senator Percy said we “spend $66 million a day trying to save the 16 million people of South Viet name while leaving the plight of 20 million urban poor in our own country unresolved." America began to become aware of Viet Nam because of the increasing number of American troops sent to Viet Nam, the increase in taxes and the number of Vietnamese civilian casualties. The U.S. tried to prove that at least half of the civilian casualties were because of VC terror, but actually the U.S. was the greater cause. While the VC, using guns and knives, were selective in their targets; the U.S. used bombs and napalm. Also, the public became aware of the Vietnamese government’s corruption, the torture of VC by the Southern armies, and the spread of prostitution around American camps. As an example of the destruction done by Americans; if a village was destroyed it was because it was used by or harbored VC, if crops were destroyed it was to deny the VC food.

In November 1967, the U.S. began to boast of military and political progress, that the VC morale was low, that there was a lot of desertion, and they only had 223,000 troops and therefore unable to launch a major campaign.

On January 31st, 1968, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese launched a coordinate attack on targets in South Viet Nam.

Saigon experienced two weeks of street fighting and they almost took the U.S. Embassy. In Hue, it took four weeks of fighting and the death of 4,000 civilians by artillery and air attacks which resulted in almost total destruction of the city before the VC were driven out. At Bentre, an American officer said, “we had to destroy the city in order to save it. “Yet still the U.S. considered Tet to be a success. No cities were lost, but rural areas fell back into VC control. Before Tet, the VC had an estimated 223,00 troops and approximately 50,000 were killed during Tet. Yet even after the addition of 84,000 North Vietnamese, the CIA said the enemy had between 505,000 and 600,000 troops by March.