The Vietnam War 1954-1968

By 1954 in the aftermath of the Geneva Accords the Vietnamese government was struggling to cope with the challenges it faced. The country was crippled by economic, political and social problems, which the discredited and badly organised government couldn’t cope with.  What was needed was a strong leader, a charismatic leader who could unite the factions behind a coherent ideology to counter the communist threat and Ho Chi Minh’s leadership. The problem was that few internal pro American leaders fitted the bill, most leaders had either joined the communists or been killed by the French in the preceding conflict. The best of the available candidates Ngo Dinh Diem became the Prime minister of South Vietnam in June 1954.

Diem came from the same region of North Central Vietnam as Ho Chi Minh (Nghe An) but was a very different character from his rival. Diem was seen as an ascetic Catholic with strong Confucian roots, sometimes described as ‘A mixture of monk and Mandarin’. He ruled South Vietnam with a strong sense of his own infallibility almost as a divine monarch rather than a Prime Minister. He refused to honour the Geneva settlement and gained US backing but was keen not to be seen as a US puppet, so Diem and his brother developed their own ideology which became known as Personalism. This was a Christian inspired alternative to communism and Western Liberalism, empathising human dignity rather than materialism. Its focus was on family and social groups in the hope that it would inspire enthusiasm among the people. Diem saw his power as being the key to any future harmony so systematically started to remove any challenges to his authority.

His first problem was the local warlords, the most powerful of whom were Hoa Hoa, Cao Dai, and Binh Xuyen.  Over two years Diem battled these groups and his victory, which came as a surprise to many, gave him the confidence to challenge and win the Presidency of the Republic of Vietnam in October 1955. Diem now moved to secure his power, firstly moving against the powerful civil service and then the Armed forces making sure each organisation was so disorganised that he wouldn’t face a coup. He deliberately played his intelligences services off against the Army, the two organisations he needed to be pulling together if he was to have any hope of beating the communist threat. In fact the in-fighting and his fear of betrayal became the focus and the VC (Viet Cong) a secondary consideration.

In this new Republic all power was held by the Ngo family, with the new rulers being Diem, his brother Nhu and sister-in-law Madam Nhu. Some commentators have even suggested that it was Nhu that was the real power behind the throne and Diem had a limited understanding of the real events. Unwilling to delegate and paranoid they quickly alienated the population, and their only power base was among central Vietnam and fellow Catholics. The Americans soon became concerned that this power base was too small and in the attempt to win ‘Hearts and Minds’ they persuaded Diem to make some concessions. Despite some reluctance Diem did make some land reforms in the form of a resettlement policy which was known by the term Agrovilles but was later to become known as the Strategic Hamlet Programme. The idea was to copy the success of the British during the Malayan emergency where peasants were forcibly moved into fortified strategic villages to deny the communist insurgent’s access to recruits and supplies. Unlike Malaya this programme was carried out with a brutal lack of competency and the villages proved much harder to isolate than in Malaya, many soon fell under VC control.

Meanwhile the Communists were regrouping; they had just fought a protracted war against the French and needed to rebuild their strength in the North, all the time believing that Diem’s regime would soon collapse anyway, if not after the scheduled 1956 elections.  This was a mistake as the US quickly stepped in to bolster Diem’s regime with military advisors and equipment.  With this help the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) carried out a very successful campaign against Vietminh cells in the Mekong Delta region in 1956.  By 1957 it was obvious to the Communists that the scheduled elections were not going to take place, so plans began to retake the South. The Geneva Accords prohibited any military build up on either side of the border so the communists created the National Liberation front (NLF) to bring together the groups opposed to Diem - as it was a South Vietnamese organisation it did not violate the terms of the Treaty.

The VC established itself in the Mekong Delta and Central highlands, areas whose difficult terrain had traditionally been a hiding place for bandits. The terrain allowed the VC to control the time, place and pace of any encounter with government forces. It was also an easy area to gain local support due to the suffering of people in the region. The ARVN were not a match for the VC despite US help, the ARVN commanders had a less than enthusiastic approach, believing in working only office hours and taking a few casualties (and therefore as few risks) as possible otherwise their promotion prospects could be harmed. An example of this was the battle of Ap Bac in January 1963. The battle illustrated the ARVN’s total lack of battlefield leadership, aggressiveness and an almost non existent chain of command. Also although 80% of the war was taking place in the Mekong Delta only two of the ARVN’s Divisions were stationed there, the rest were in areas protecting the Ngo family or their interests, clearly illustrating how hamstrung the US advisors were in affecting Diem’s strategy.

In sharp contrast the VC were superior in almost every way, well disciplined and under no illusions about the nature of the war they were fighting. They were dedicated and would leave no bodies or expended cartridges behind, denying the government forces any satisfaction or even sense that they were achieving anything. The US hoped that by throwing more men and money at the problem they would get results, but Diem just refused to reform or to change his belief that he was fighting a conventional war. As Diem tightened his grip South Vietnam had become a dictatorship by 1962 with all the repression and controls of a communist state without the ideology or motivation. US policy was described by the journalist Homer Bigart as “Sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem”

In spring 1963 Government forces sparked a crisis after they killed several Buddhist monks demonstrating about not being able to fly flags to celebrate Buddha’s birthday, despite the fact Catholics had been allowed to fly flags a few days earlier. The crisis lasted four months and created a climate which allowed the US to change direction and bring about the downfall of Diem. Religious objections quickly encompassed other issues and all of Diem’s opponents rallied to the cause, but Diem’s downfall would have been impossible without US complicity. US President Kennedy had become frustrated with Diem’s inability to conciliate dissident groups so he gave the new US ambassador to South Vietnam the go-ahead to encourage senior officers in the ARVN to stage a coup d’etat. The men who came forward to lead the coup were Duong Van Minh and Tran Van Don, but the CIA quickly realised that the key to success was the commander of Saigon’s Special Forces, General Ton That Dinh. He was eventually persuaded to join the coup.

Nhu was aware of the plot and began to make tentative overtures to the communists while planning his own counter coup which ironically also relied on General Dinh’s support. Finally after much procrastination the coup took place on 1st November 1963. Nhu and Diem fled from the palace to the Cholon district of Saigon where they eventually gave themselves up the following day. It had been agreed that they would be spared but the guard shot them both at point blank range as they were transported in an armoured personnel carrier, President Kennedy had little chance to rue this as he was himself assassinated three weeks later.

In the period 1963 to 1968 the level of American intervention in Vietnam increased drastically, it its role changed from propping up a regime to gradually taking over the war. The Americans had hoped that with Diem gone a strong civilian government would emerge, but these hopes were quickly dashed when a military coup lead by Doung Van Minh took power. The new administration was corrupt and inept and in many ways even worse than Diem’s. By the end of 1963 this junta was itself deposed by the flamboyant Nguyen Khanh. The Americans would have preferred a democratic government but at least Khanh provided what seemed a strong government, although internal power struggles still hampered the war effort.

Lyndon B Johnson became US President after Kennedy’s death in November 1963 and faced the decision to either escalate US involvement or seek a settlement.  Many pushed for the war to be ‘Americanised’ giving them greater control of how the war was actually being fought, the expression was to move from ‘swatting flies’ to going after the ‘manure pile’.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff put forward a plan which included air and commando strikes into North Vietnam, flights over Laos and Cambodia for intelligence and the use of US combat forces. Johnson was a particularly domestically focused President but by 1964 Vietnam had become a problem he could no longer place on the back burner. He faced a Presidential election in November 1964 and had to show that he had not gone ‘soft’ on communism. Johnson’s answer was to increase the number of US military Advisors to 15,000. On 2 August 1964 the Gulf of Tonkin Incident occurred when US destroyer Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats - the aftermath allowed Johnson to get a congressional resolution passed allowing him to sanction all and any measures to repel attacks on US forces in Vietnam.  Meanwhile the VC were becoming more daring in their attacks on US forces in Vietnam including attacks on Bien Hao air base and a hotel in Saigon housing US officials. Finally a VC attack on a base near Pleiku in the Central highlands left 8 US dead and more than 100 injured, this provoked US retaliation in the form of ‘Operation Flaming Dart’. The operation lasted only 2 weeks and a targeted NVA (North Vietnamese Army) camp, when it ended it was replaced by the famous ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’ which was a heavy continuous bombing programme that was to last for three years. On 8th March 1965 two US marine battalions arrived at Danang and by the end of the year their numbers had already increased to 200,000. With US honour as well as President Johnson’s reputation at stake the US was now fully committed to the war, especially considering the increasing chaos of the domestic regime.

In mid 1964 Khanh declared a state of emergency and drafted a new constitution for South Vietnam, which angered the people to such an extent that they took to the streets in protest. Not surprisingly there was a coup attempt on 13th September but it collapsed within 24 hours.  The US was now loosing patience with Khanh and asked him to resign which unsurprisingly he refused to do and explained to them that he had the power to expel them not the other way around. In February 1965 Khanh finally fell to a coup headed by a civilian Dr Phan Huy Quat but this was yet another weak government which only lasted until June when it was ousted by General Nguyen Van Thieu who became President and Air Vice Marshall Nguyen Cao Ky who became Prime Minister. Thieu remained the President of South Vietnam until he fled to Taiwan in April 1975 in the face of an imminent communist take over. The new government was relatively stable but the old problems of an unresponsive and corrupt civilian and military hierarchy remained. This was a huge asset to the VC who were able to subvert the local authorities in the countryside and replaced government officials with people loyal to their cause. The American’s realised that South Vietnam’s social-economic structure aided the VC so tried to persuade Thieu and Ky to adopt a ‘Pacification’ programme to win ‘Hearts and minds’. Pacification was an ambitious military, economic and social programme under US control aiming to bring security and economic development to the countryside. If it had been started much earlier it may have been successful but at this point it was too late. The programme didn’t really get started until 1967 and it had limited support from the Regime, as by this time Americanisation of the war had reduced any real incentive to make any reforms. The Americans also were now committed to winning the war militarily and wanted to avoid becoming too involved in Vietnam’s internal politics in case they were accused of neo-colonialism. At this time the covert operation, the Phoenix Program also began a highly controversial program which targeted those people collecting taxes to fund the VC. It was somewhat successful but again it was too little too late.

The US military build up in 1965 wasn’t just US Marine Corps forces, but included large scale use of artillery, tactical air support and large scale armoured sweeps. Some advisors wanted the marines to just defend US bases but General Westmoreland quoted “A good offence is the best defence”. A policy of attrition was followed and the infamous body counts of dead VC, but this was always going to be a flawed way to measure military success. The attrition served two purposes, to convince the communists that they could not win by sheer cost and to keep the South Vietnamese government intact. In order to aid this strategy the number of US troops in Vietnam gradually increased to a staggering 540,000 men by the end of 1968.  Due to political reasons this increase happened in stages to make it more palatable for the US public but this gave the communists more time to absorb the increased pressure and increase their infiltration rate to match the US build up.

Overall the whole US policy in Vietnam between 1965 and 1968 was limited, keeping out of too much internal involvement, and limiting troop build up to avoid a public backlash, bombing targets where limited to prevent anything that might bring China into the war and risk a repeat of the Korean war or causing too many civilian deaths and risking a public outcry. Unsurprisingly limited effort and a limited war produced limited results. The bombing was far from cost effective costing the US $900 million but only causing $300 million in damage. The North Vietnamese quickly recovered from each raid and their resolve remained un-weakened after all for them they had been fighting the same war for nearly 20 years. The US war of attrition in fact did little to the VC but did wear out the US public’s patience with the war. By 1967 the war was costing the US $21 billion a year and had cost more than 6000 US lives. Anti war campaigns were growing in the US and even Johnson’s Secretary for defence Robert McNamara criticised US policy and was then replaced. Facing another Presidential election in 1968, General Westmoreland was brought back to assure the US public that the war was being won; he outlined various ‘indicators’ of success and stated that a limited withdrawal could begin in early 1968. Johnson stated that ‘Pacification’ was working and 67% of Vietnam was now safe. This image was shattered a week later when the VC launched a massive offensive within Saigon itself, The Tet offensive cost the VC dear but was extremely damaging for the US politically. In the face of domestic political pressure President Johnson rejected Westmoreland’s call for victory via military expansion and on 31st March 1968 stated that the US was ready to discuss peace with North Vietnam, those seeking peace saw this as the beginning of the end but Johnson knew that this would just signal US weakness to the communists and spur them on to greater efforts. Johnson choose not to seek re election in 1968 and in the following election Republican Richard Nixon became President, inheriting Johnson’s commitment to Vietnam.

Bright, Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, The classic book on Vietnam and a must have, an epic and passionate account of the highs and lows of the war seen through the eyes of a young US officer. If you read just one account of the war then this is it.
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The Making of a Quagmire: American and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era. A Pulitzer Prize winning account of Vietnam with footnotes containing information about events and key people. The book focuses on the early part of the conflict and how the USA became entangled.
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How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T (26 November 2007), The Vietnam War 1954-1968,

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