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Korean War and Vietnam Revision Notes

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Korean War and Vietnam Revision Notes
Unit 1 D6: Ideology, Conflict and Retreat; the USA in Asia, 1950-73

A: The Korean War, 1950-53; causes, course and consequences

Background to the Korean War

Korea had been under Japanese occupation since 1910. With the defeat of Japan in 1945 the USA and USSR agreed to divide the country into two zones along the 38th Parallel.

The United Nations demanded free elections for the whole country and was supported by the USA which did not see this as a permanent division and believed that since their zone contained two-thirds of the population, the communist north would be outvoted.

Korea became part of the general post war cold war rivalry and no agreement could be reached.

Elections were held in the south, supervised by the UN, and the independent Republic of Korea, or South Korea, was set up, in 1948, with Syngman Rhee as President.

Within a month the Soviet Union had created the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea under the communist government of Kim II Sung.

In 1949 Russian and US troops were withdrawn but in June 1950 North Korean troops invaded South Korea

Which side started the war?

The North claimed it was started by South Korea who shelled an area on the Ongjin Peninsula on 23 June 1950 and then sent their 17th Regiment to seize the town of Haeju. The 17th Regiment was a crack unit of soldiers formerly from the North who hated communism.

The more likely explanation is that the 17th Regiment was acting in retaliation to an invasion from the North.

Why did Kim II Sung invade South Korea?

There are two schools of thought among historians.

One school believes he was encouraged by Stalin as a means of spreading communism and testing Truman’s policy of containment.

They had supplied the North Koreans with tanks and other equipment. A communist takeover would strengthen Russia’s position in the Pacific and make up for Stalin’s failure in Berlin.

The other school of thought, influenced by Khrushchev’s memoirs, believes that Stalin was too cautious to risk an escalation of the conflict into a possible war with the USA and looks for other reasons.

It was Kim II Sung’s own idea, possibly encouraged by a statement by Dean Acheson, the US Secretary of State, earlier in 1950.

Acheson was talking about which areas round the Pacific the USA intended to defend, and for some reason, he did not include Korea.

Kim II Sung may also have been encouraged by the new Chinese Communist government.

Why did the USA intervene?

The principle of deterring aggression

The entry of the USA was, on the face of it, a response to the aggression of North Korea in invading the South.

The USA was able to force a resolution through the UN Security Council, taking advantage of the absence of the Soviet Union, on the invasion to justify their intervention.

‘The armed attack upon the Republic of Korea by forces from North Korea constitutes a breach of the peace’.

The US claimed that it was acting to uphold democracy and peace against aggression. But, on the other hand, Syngman Rhee’s regime in South Korea was not a model of freedom and democracy.

Truman insisted he was determined to avoid the mistakes of the League of Nations in the 1930s in the face of aggression and uphold the principles of the UN.

By using the UN, the USA gained the support of its allies for armed intervention.

Truman would have preferred indirect intervention but the South Korean army was too weak to hold back the communist forces.

Context of the Cold War

The communist invasion of the South came at a time when the USA felt increasingly under threat in its rivalry with the Soviet Union and attempts to contain the spread of communism.

In 1949 the Soviet Union successfully tested its first atom bomb. The USA had believed this was unlikely to occur until late 1950 and had lost its lead in the development of nuclear technology.

The success of Mao and communism in China was another blow to the US policy of containment. The defeat of the US-supported Nationalist forces was a failure for US policy.

The Soviet Union now had a powerful communist ally in Asia and also a base for future communist expansion throughout the region, and especially neighbouring Indochina and Korea.

This seemed to confirm the idea that once one Asian state became communist, the rest would follow. As Truman said

‘If we let Korea down, the Soviets will keep right on going and swallow up one piece of Asia after another’.

From 1954 this came to be known as the ‘Domino Theory’.

Domestic pressures

Truman faced pressure at home to take a strong line over Korea.

Republicans accused him to being too ‘soft’ on communism and he was blamed for the loss of China.

The USA was experiencing the early stages of the McCarthy witch- hunts and there was growing and strong anti-communist feelings fuelled by the trials of Hiss and the Rosenbergs.

Hawks in the air force, such as Vandenburg and Finletter, were pushing for direct action against the communists.

Truman had accepted the National Security Council Paper 68 (NSC-68), which had recommended a stronger policy to contain communism and a substantial increase in the armed forces of the USA.

Korea gave Truman the excuse to justify the implementation of NSC-68, especially having to raise taxes to finance military expansion.

Changing aims of the USA

US aims changed due to developments during the war.

The initial reason for intervention was to save the South from North Korea’s forces. This had been achieved by September 1950, with Stalin offering little or no aid to the North.

This limited intervention changed when Truman authorised the invasion of the North. The USA was now committed to removing communism from the whole of Korea.

MacArthur, more or less unilaterally, took the decision to escalate the war even further into a war in Asia. Truman, however, was far less cautious and eventually forced MacArthur’s resignation in April 1951.

The intervention of the Chinese and their initial success forced Truman to revert to the original aim of driving communist armies north of the 38th parallel.

What were the results of US intervention in the Korean War?

The impact on the course of the war

US intervention eventually turned a localised civil war into a battle between the forces of communism and capitalism.

The first major result was that the USA was able to save the South whose army had been driven to a small peninsula called Pusan.

General MacArthur organised very successful landings of US forces at Inchon in September 1950. US forces regained territory south of the 38th parallel and inflicted a major defeat on the People’s Army of the North.

The speed of MacArthur’s success encouraged Truman to authorise the decision to move into North Korea.

MacArthur’s forces quickly advanced to the Chinese border and the Yalu River. Mao sent volunteer forces across the border as a warning to the USA.

This was ignored and in November 1950 MacArthur resumed his advance which resulted in a massive Chinese invasion into North Korea. In preparation for such an attack, MacArthur had used napalm to turn the area into a wilderness.

By the end of 1950 Chinese troops had recaptured all land north of the 38th Parallel.

Throughout 1951 a stalemate developed on the 38th Parallel. MacArthur once again demanded the use of atomic bombs against China. Truman, increasingly alarmed by MacArthur’s attitude, sacked him in April 1951.

Peace talks between the two sides began at Kaesong in July 1951 but dragged on until early 1953. The election of a new US President, Eisenhower, and the death of Stalin, paved the way to the signing of an armistice in July 1953.

The impact of military technology

US military power and technology proved vital in the survival of South Korea. It nullified communist superiority in numbers especially after China became involved.

6 million US soldiers served in Korea with 33,000 killed in action.

US air power proved very effective, inflicting half the enemy casualties and providing much needed cover for ground forces. Napalm proved very effective in destroying targets on the ground.

Aircraft carriers enabled the US to strike much further into North Korea.

Truman considered the use of nuclear weapons on at least two occasions. Firstly at Pusan to halt the initial North Korean advance, and, later, when requested by MacArthur, December 1950, to halt the Chinese 8th Army. On both occasions, he decided against its use.

The impact on East-West relations

US involvement in Korea also brought changes to US policy in the rest of Asia.

The USA became far more committed to Chiang Kaishek and his Nationalist government of Taiwan. Indeed, the US Seventh Fleet was sent to the seas around Taiwan as a warning to Mao not to invade Taiwan.

Until Korea, the USA had shown little sympathy for the French struggle to defeat the communists in Indochina led by Ho Chi Minh. They preferred to distance themselves from this example of European imperialism.

From 1950, Indochina was seen as crucial in the fight to contain communism. This led to $1 billion a year aid to the French and the early stages of US involvement in the war in Vietnam.

The USA also developed defensive alliances, on the lines of NATO, to contain communism in Asia.

In 1951 they signed ANZUS, an anti-communist alliance with Australia and New Zealand.

In 1954 they set up SEATO, the South East Asia Treaty Organisation, with states in this area as a bulwark to communism.

The Korean War escalated the Cold War from Europe to Asia and was the first ‘hot war’. Yet, at the same time, it also established the principle of limited war.

The USA avoided the use of nuclear weapons but now had to develop tactics involving conventional weapons to contain the spread of communism. This had important implications for later involvement in Vietnam.

The impact within the USA

At first US involvement was popular at home but the prolonged conflict, the failure to secure a quick victory, led to growing disillusionment especially when casualties reached 23,161 in the month of June, 1953.

This attitude was worsened by the failure of the US public to understand the causes and nature of the conflict or the people of Korea and an increasing number of desertions by US soldiers. Ninety per of Americans in military hospitals in 1953 had self-inflicted wounds.

The war brought about greatly increased military spending in the USA with the recommendations of NSC-68 being implemented. For example Congress voted to spend $10 on the army in 1950 and £260 million on the development of the hydrogen bomb.

The war did bring significant gains for the USA led to even greater determination by the US government to prevent the spread of communism.

The ceasefire line of 1954 was more or less the same as the 38th Parallel. However the US, through the actions of the UN, had prevented the fall of Syngman Rhee’s government of South Korea.

Results of the war

For Korea

In many respects a disaster for the people of Korea. The country was devastated and 5 million had been left homeless and the country remained divided.

The only person who gained was Syngman Rhee who remained leader of South Korea until 1960.

Soviet Union and China

The war was, in many respects, a failure for Stalin and the Soviet Union who had not intervened on behalf of North Korea.

Although the war led to the loss of many Chinese lives, China had emerged as the leader of the communist movement in Asia.

The UN

The UN had made a stand against aggression. However, it had been seen as a tool of US foreign policy.

B: The Ideological struggle in south East Asia in the early 1950s

The French in Vietnam

The withdrawal of France from Indochina had important repercussions for US policy in Asia. To the USA, it was another example of the spread of communism and brought their involvement in the conflict in Vietnam.

Why were the French unable to reassert control over Indochina?

Under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, the communist Vietminh, the People’s Liberation Army, had gained much support from all levels of society, especially in their resistance to the Japanese during the Second World War.

In 1945 Ho Chi Minh set up the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

Under the terms of the Japanese surrender in 1945 the British occupied the south and refused to negotiate with the Vietminh and make concessions. When French rule was restored throughout Indochina, they also declined to make concessions to Ho Chi Minh.

At first the French underestimated the strength of the Vietminh and, in 1946, declared that ‘there was no longer any military problem in Indochina’. They made no attempt to help the people.

The French wanted to set up a federation in Indo-China and reached an agreement with Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietminh.

But the agreement soon broke down. The French were only prepared to allow Ho Chi Minh to control a small area in the north. He wanted to control all of Vietnam.

The French treated their colonies as an extension of France; they were simply ‘outre-mer’, France overseas. All important posts were held by French and there was no idea such as the British Commonwealth.

Instead they restored the power of the feudal landlords and established Emperor Bao Dai as head of Vietnam. He was seen as a French puppet ruler.

During the next nine years, the French tried to regain control of the whole area. They were relatively successful in the south, but unsuccessful in the north.

French military weakness in Vietnam

They had 20,000 Foreign Legionnaires, half of whom had served in Nazi armies and 48,000 from the French colonies.

They had no plan to combat the guerrilla tactics of the Vietminh. Instead, they alienated most of the native population with their policies.

For example, in November 1946 a French cruiser bombarded the port of Haiphong, killing 6,000, to ‘give a harsh lesson’ to the Vietminh. They failed to realise the need to win over the native population in order to combat guerrilla tactics.

Attitudes to Indochina in France

French public opinion was divided about the war. Indeed, as French casualties mounted, the French were to lose 72,000 lives in the conflict, the media and public turned against the war.

The new French government elected in 1953 was preoccupied with domestic issues and gave little direction to General Navarre, the French military commander in Indochina.

He believed defeat against the guerrilla tactics of the Vietminh to be inevitable and was looking for some military success to strengthen France’s hand at the negotiating table.

He drew the Vietminh into open battle at Dien Bien Phu but was defeated. After 55 days of heavy fighting the French surrendered in March 1954.

Why were the French defeated at Dien Bien Phu?

The French believed that the Vietminh would be forced to mount a frontal attack as it would be impossible for them to move heavy artillery through the jungle. This would allow superior French fire-power to be effective.

The Vietminh commander, General Giap, used 200,000 porters to ensure his soldiers were properly supplied and manhandle artillery through the jungle.

The attack came in March 1954. The Vietminh attacked with 70,000 troops and soon overran the airfields. The French inside Dien Bien Phu were outnumbered six to one.

The main reason was that they underestimated the Vietminh. The Vietminh commander General Giap had been training his army using modern weapons from China.

The French defenders were outnumbered and soon under heavy bombardment.

The camp was isolated, but the French believed that they could keep it supplied by air.

Once the Vietminh captured the airstrips, the garrison had to be supplied by air. Many of the supplies fell into the hands of the Vietminh and the French soon ran out of food and ammunition.

In two months the French were forced to surrender and evacuate all of Vietnam.

Lack of direct military support from the USA. The USA was happy to finance the French war in Indochina but did not want direct involvement, especially having just extricated itself from the conflict in Korea.

The Geneva Conference

The Geneva Conference of 1954 arranged a ceasefire and the French withdrawal from Indochina.

Independence was given to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Vietnam was to be divided along the 17th Parallel until elections could be held within two years to unite the country under a democratic government.

Implications of French withdrawal on the conflict between capitalism and communism

Communism had strong support in all three countries formerly part of Indochina.

The division of north and south in Vietnam was meant to be short-lived, with elections, under international supervision, to be held for a united government in 1956.

North Vietnam was, temporarily under the control of the Vietminh. They strengthened their hold by introducing land reform which led to the death of many former landlords.

The US exaggerated the number, with Richard Nixon claiming that 500,000 died. The figure was probably 50,000 or less.

The Vietminh also held over 20 per cent of the south and it was widely believed that the Vietminh would win the elections due in 1956.

The US refused to support the idea of a united Vietnam almost certainly under communist control. They did not see Ho Chi Minh as a popular leader but rather as an agent of communist expansion.

They rejected the elections on the pretext that they were not to be organised by the UN but by an international commission.

Instead the US decided to prop up the regime established by Diem in South Vietnam. In 1956 they gave Diem $250 million and increasing sums over the next few years.

The USA was propping up a corrupt and brutal regime and used bribes to buy off some of his opponents and perpetuating the division of Vietnam.

The Soviet Union and China both put pressure on Ho Chi Minh to accept the Geneva Settlement and not use force to reunify the country. The Soviet leader, Khrushchev, was keen on a policy of détente.

In 1954 the USA set up SEATO to strengthen their attempts to contain the spread of communism in Asia and justify future intervention in Vietnam.


SEATO was planned to be a Southeast Asian version of NATO, in which the military forces of each member would be coordinated to provide for the collective defence of the members. SEATO did use portions of the military forces of its members in annual joint training manoeuvres.

The membership of SEATO was a combination of Western nations: France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and Asian-Pacific nations such as Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, and New Zealand.

Pakistan was included not only because East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was geographically close to Southeast Asia, but possibly because Pakistan was a member of the pro-Western CENTO alliance.

Thus the pro-Western, anti-communist military alliances of the Mid-east and Southeast Asia were linked by the membership of Pakistan in both.

Despite being intended to provide a collective, anti-communist shield to Southeast Asia, SEATO was unable to intervene in the conflicts in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam because an intervention required a decision of unanimity, which was never reached.

Unlike the NATO alliance, SEATO had no joint commands with standing forces. Also unlike NATO, an attack on one member was not automatically considered an attack on all.

Consequently, each member could effectively block any collective SEATO action. Given the declining interest of France (after 1954) and the United Kingdom (after the end of the Indonesian-Malaysian conflict, in 1966) in Southeast Asia, SEATO failed to be effective as a collective security organization.

The United States sought, but failed, to make the Vietnam War into a SEATO collective defence problem.

Questions of dissolving the organization arose as early as 1973. Pakistan withdrew on November 7, 1973. and France withdrew on June 30, 1974. The organization formally ended in 1977.

The British in Malaysia

When Britain regained control of Malaya after the Second World War, the first priority was to protect the area from communist attacks.

Britain decided to set up a Malayan Union uniting the nine Malay states but this was unpopular because equal rights were given to non-Malays and the position of the sultans was affected.

Consequently, the Union was replaced by the Federation of Malaya in 1948. In the new constitution the position of Malays and the sultans were safeguarded.

But no sooner had one problem been solved than another one emerged. In 1948 attacks by communist guerrillas began.

Guerrillas belonging to the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) began by attacking Chinese and Indian workers on rubber plantations.

The British responded by declaring a State of Emergency and sending more forces to Malaya.

In 1950, the Briggs’ Plan was put into operation. ‘New Villages’ were set up where workers could be protected and ration cards were issued to prevent communist guerrillas getting their hands on supplies.

Rewards were offered for the capture of guerrillas and weed killer was sprayed on to the jungle to prevent them growing food.

From 1952, ‘white areas’ of Malaya were declared. These had been cleared of communists. Despite some successes, the guerrillas were soon forced into the jungle.

Talks between the guerrillas and the Malayan government, led by Tunku Abdul Rahman, began in 1955 and in 1957 the guerrillas were offered an amnesty.

But by then there were only about 1,500 guerrillas who were faced by more than 25,000 troops and police.

Negotiations dragged on for several years and the State of Emergency did not come to and end until 1960.

Why were the British able to defeat the guerrillas?

After withdrawal from Palestine, the British were able to send experienced troops to Malaya. They soon outnumbered the guerrillas.

RAF bombers were used to attack guerrilla camps. The Briggs’ Plan meant that villagers could be protected and rewards led to many communist being handed in.

Almost 3,000 communists surrendered under the 1957 amnesty. The communists were also mostly Chinese and they soon lost the support of Chinese workers when they attacked rubber plantations.

The creation of Malaysia

While the State of Emergency was in force, the British began to prepare Malaya for independence.

The first elections were held in 1955 and resulted in a victory for the alliance of the United Malays National Organisation and the Malay Chinese Association. Tungku Abdul Rahman became the first Chief Minister of Malaya.

Negotiations for independence began in 1955 and resulted in a constitution being drawn up in 1957. The Merdeka Constitution set up a parliament with two chambers and gave special privileges to Malays.

In May 1961, Tunku Abdul Rahman proposed the merger of Malaya, Singapore, Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia. One of his reasons for doing this was to counter growing communist influence in Singapore.

He also wanted to increase the proportion of Malays in the new country and to bring independence to the territories at the earliest opportunity. He believed that Malaysia would then become one of the dominant economic powers in South East Asia.

The treatment of Malaya by the British is in clear contrasts with the treatment of Indo-China by the French and helps to explain the success of the British policy.

It was clear from the outset that British policy was independence for Malaya, whilst French policy was dependence for Indo-China.

C: Growing US participation in Vietnam, 1954-68: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson.

How did the USA move to a position whereby over half a million US troops were fighting in Vietnam? This is not easy to answer as there was never any formal US declaration of war. Did the USA stumble into direct participation?

How and why did the USA become involved?

Domino Theory was the key to US policy. Democracy and the pride of the USA were threatened by the advance of communism in Asia.

In 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem seized power in South Vietnam and made himself president and then ruled as a dictator.

The elections were not held in 1956 and Diem became increasingly corrupt and violent. Trade unionists, religious leaders and journalists were thrown into jail.

Diem was a Catholic in a country where 70% of the population was Buddhist. Increasingly he faced opposition from Buddhists and replied with greater cruelty.

In Diem’s actions led to opposition groups forming the National Liberation Front and began a guerrilla war against the government of South Vietnam. It was backed by North Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh sent supplies.

Eisenhower decided to prop up the Diem regime and ignore the Geneva Settlement. He set up MAAG, the Military Assistance Advisory Group, to provide military advisers to South Vietnam.

Substantial aid was given to Diem to promote a policy of ‘Nation Building’ by which he was supposed to bring in economic and social reforms. He ignored the US advisers and used the money to strengthen his own regime.

President Kennedy was determined to maintain the survival South Vietnam especially after Khrushchev, in a speech in 1961, made clear Soviet intentions to support liberation movements throughout the world. This, at a time, when Diem was more unpopular than ever.

Kennedy, therefore, greatly increased US aid and involvement. The Green Berets were sent to train the Army of South Vietnam in guerrilla warfare and the CIA organised Civilian Irregular Defence Groups to act as local militia.

Kennedy also introduced the policy of ‘strategic hamlets’ in an attempt to separate the population from the Vietcong. This involved moving peasants into fortified villages, guarded by troops. This backfired due to the forcible moving of peasants from their land.

He even considered sending troops to Vietnam in 1961 but was advised against it. As Diem’s regime lost more and more support, Kennedy sent more and equipment and advisers and, eventually, 200000 troops.

The US public was led to believe that each increase in US aid was bringing success in the war between the north and south. Many in the US government ignored the real situation in order to justify this step by step approach – that the Vietcong was attracting more and more support in the south and the government of Diem less and less.

By 1963 Diem’s rule in South Vietnam was so corrupt that he was facing continuous opposition. Several Buddhist monks burned themselves to death in protest.

Kennedy threatened to with draw military aid and then backed a plot by South Vietnamese generals to arrest Diem. He was murdered just three weeks before Kennedy’s own assassination.

Johnson and escalation

President Johnson, Kennedy’s successor in 1963, was criticised by Republicans in Congress as being soft on communism. Some historians believe he rejected a possible solution that would have enabled US withdrawal.

In 1963 Diem’s successor, General Duong Van Minh, suggested the establishment of a neutral government of reconciliation for all Vietnam and subsequent elections. However, it is unlikely that this compromise would have worked.

Instead, Johnson accepted the advice of his Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, for a policy of flexible response. In other words send even more military equipment and specialist forces to Vietnam to increase policy options in the area.

Johnson, however, needed greater presidential powers to implement to such a policy. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, August 1964, when North Vietnamese troops attacked US naval vessels, gave him the excuse to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the power to wage war on Vietnam as he saw fit.

After the fall of Diem, the position of the South Vietnamese government was weakened by a series of short-lived military governments. By 1964, 35 per cent of South Vietnam was in Vietcong hands. Johnson ignored negotiation and withdrawal.

In 1965 he sanctioned ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, the bombing of North Vietnam, in retaliation to Vietcong attacks on US military bases in the South. He believed that US superior technology would force North Vietnam tote negotiating table.

Operation Rolling Thunder failed to make any impact on the war. Strategic bombing as ineffective against a mainly agricultural country with few specific industrial and military targets.

At the same time Johnson sent the first combat troops into Vietnam with two battalions of US marines arriving at Da Nang in March 1965. Johnson deliberately played down this action to give Congress and the US public the impression that US intervention remained limited.

As the USA took over the running of the war in the South, the number of troops increased rapidly to 535,000 by 1968. These troops were under the command of General William Westmoreland and employed a variety of strategies to root out the Vietcong.

Policies such as search and destroy missions to find communist bases in the jungle and eliminate them, air attacks to provide support for ground troops, and Operation Ranch Hand which involved chemical warfare to strip the Vietcong of their jungle cover.

How far was Johnson responsible for the escalation of US involvement in Vietnam?

Was it really Johnson’s war?

Johnson initiated the air strikes and sent the troops. By 1968, there were 500,000 U S troops in Vietnam.

US commitment to South Vietnam had increased steadily since 1954 and, at the time of Kennedy’s death, there were already 16,000 advisers in Vietnam. Johnson also inherited a disintegrating regime in South Vietnam.

Johnson believed in the domino theory and the threat of communist expansion.

He also believed that the USA had made a pledge/promise to help those under attack from communism and was duty bound to maintain that promise. He refused to compromise seeing it as the same as Chamberlain and appeasement in the late 1930s.

When he first became president in 1963 Johnson was heavily reliant on his advisers but they were divided. One, George Ball, advised withdrawal, McGeorge Bundy a limited policy of step-by-step assistance to South Vietnam, but most, led by Robert McNamara, favoured massive military deployment.

South Vietnam was so weak in 1963 that greatly increased military assistance was essential against the threat from the North. Kennedy may well have been forced to follow the same policy.

Johnson’s policy of gradual escalation was to avoid a damaging debate over the war. His major aim was the creation of a ‘Great Society’, a policy of social and economic support.

To achieve this he needed popular support especially as he had not been elected as President. If he backed down over Vietnam then he would be seen as coward and lose the support necessary for these reforms.

Johnson was seen as a man in a hurry, looking for quick fix-it solutions to most problems. He had had two heart attacks and wanted the situation in Vietnam resolved as quickly as possible.

Johnson certainly became fixated on Vietnam. He had models of the siege of Da Nang built in a basement of the White House and is said to have prowled around it in the small hours.

Historical interpretations

There have been numerous different interpretations as to why the USA became involved in the conflict in Vietnam.

The Quagmire Thesis is that successive US governments did not understand the situation in Vietnam and stepped up US involvement without any understanding of its consequences.

Other historians have challenged this theory, especially after the Pentagon Papers, released in 1970, seemed to show that successive US governments were well aware of the situation in Vietnam and lied to the public about the extent and nature of US involvement.

Revisionist historians have tried to defend US involvement in the war on moral grounds and argue that full-scale commitment should have been made earlier.

D: The Nixon Presidency and the Withdrawal of US Forces, 1969-73.

In the 1968 presidential election campaign, Richard Nixon promised to withdraw US forces from Vietnam.

On 3 November, 1968, immediately after victory in the election, he promised that US forces would be withdrawn.

Withdrawal would be based on four principles:

1. Vietnamisation, which would reduce US casualty rates and convince the US people that the ARVN could win the war.

2. Polarisation, which would isolate opponents of the regime and win the support of the silent majority.

3. The Madman scenario; negotiations with the North Vietnamese would emphasise that Nixon was unpredictable and might use extreme force if pushed. This would be reinforced by bombing of Cambodia and Laos.

4. Triangular diplomacy: involving the USSR and China, both of whom Nixon believed were interested in reducing international tension.

In 1969, he began peace talks, and started the withdrawal of US forces, but at the same time stepped up attacks on North Vietnam.

Why did Nixon’s decision to withdraw US forces lead to increased military action?

To cover the withdrawal he stepped up Operation Rolling Thunder, one air-raid on Hanoi lasted for seven days and killed 2,000 people.

US forces also invaded Laos and Cambodia and bombed both countries and increased the use of defoliants to uncover Viet Cong supply lines. These were all attempts to try to stop the Viet Cong infiltrating the South.

In April 1972 Operation Linebacker led to 227 air-raids on the North, but they had little overall effect.

What happened after the US forces withdrew?

Negotiations between the USA and the North Vietnamese dragged on for five years. Agreement was not reached until 1973. When the US forces withdrew.

The defence of South Vietnam was then taken over by the ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. It held out until May 1975.

When South Vietnam fell it was united with the North. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

The reaction to the Vietnam War in the USA

US involvement in the war in Vietnam led to powerful opposition within the USA and a serious questioning of US values and self-confidence.

Attitudes to the war

Opponents of the war were stereotyped as radical long-haired students or ‘campus bums’ but this ignores the diversity of the opposition.

It was mainly in the national institutions of higher education, where traditional values were broken down, that anti-war attitudes developed, especially in the faculties of social sciences and humanities.

Women played a significant role in the anti-war movement. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was one of the first protest groups. Feminists saw the war as an example of outdated masculine values of strength and heroism.

The majority of black Americans opposed the war. Indeed in 1970 only 19 per cent of black women supported the war.

This opposition was influenced by the poverty suffered by many black Americans, a draft system which seemed to discriminate against blacks, and the outspoken attitude of the black boxer, Muhammad Ali, who refused to fight in Vietnam.

A number of industrial workers supported the war and organised attacks on the anti-war protesters. These were known as the ‘hard hats’. Yet a considerable number, especially by 1970, also opposed the war partly due to inflation and rising taxes.

A great number of Jewish Americans opposed to the war, 63 per cent in 1966, many of whom lived in cities less influenced by traditional values.

Support for the War

Until early 1968 there was strong support for the war in the USA. Support was strongest in the southern states.

The majority of Protestants supported the war until 1968. Catholics were staunch supporters due to their traditional opposition to communism.

Yet it was not the majority of the young who opposed the war. In 1965, a Gallup poll revealed 76 per cent of those under 30 supporting the war compared with 51 per cent of those over 49.

Even after 1968, 40 per cent of Americans continued to support the war.

Reasons for opposition to the war

Generally most Americans supported the USA’s right to stand up to the forces of communism in the years after 1945.

There had been opposition to involvement in Korea but the war had ended before this could gather momentum. The conflict in Vietnam lasted much longer.

A number of US citizens were pacifists especially the Quaker movement. Fears of the potential of a nuclear holocaust increased the number who saw war as immoral.

Some believed that US involvement in Vietnam was illegal. It broke the Geneva Agreements of 1954, had not been sanctioned by the UN nor by SEATO.

The US was seen to be supporting a corrupt regime in South Vietnam led by Diem, which was an artificial creation following the Geneva Settlement.

Vietnam was the first real televised war. It literally brought home to people the horrors of the methods being used by the USA, especially napalm and other chemical weapons.

These images had a strong impact on US society and many opposed the war because of their attitude to such methods.

Many felt that the war was adversely affecting the morals of US society. Referring to the Vietnamese as ‘gooks’ or ‘dinks’ seemed a reflection of these lowering moral standards.

The Tet Offensive of January 1968 was a major factor in changing attitudes in the USA.

This was a massive attack by the Viet Cong upon South Vietnam, which began on 30 January 1968.

All the major cities of South Vietnam were attacked, including Saigon.

In Saigon the US embassy was seized by a suicide squad, which was only driven out by paratroops. It took 11,000 troops a week to drive the Viet Cong out of Saigon.

Eventually the US forces managed to beat of the Viet Cong and killed 80,000 of them.

Why was the Tet Offensive important?

It showed that the Viet Cong could strike anywhere and at any time and that there was nothing that the Americans could do about it.

It made it clear that the war in Vietnam could not be won.

It persuaded Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate in the 1968 presidential election that US forces must be withdrawn from Vietnam.

The impact of US tactics in Vietnam

Many Americans were shocked at the attitude and behaviour of US troops in Vietnam. Massacres, most famously the murder of villagers as Mai Lai, made many question why the USA was fighting the war.

Revelations about the conduct of US troops serving in Vietnam fuelled such opposition. There was an increase in soldiers killing their officers by ‘fragging’, desertion and the use of drugs. These were all evidence of demoralisation in the armed forces.

News filtered back to the USA of the fighting in Vietnam, each soldier served for one year and more than 3,000,000 Americans altogether served in Vietnam.

But by far and away the most important factor was television. This was the first war to be shown live on television and in colour.

In 1965 viewers saw a GI set fire to a peasant’s hut with his cigarette lighter. In 1968 they watched as a Viet Cong prisoner was shot dead.

Opposition to the war also part of the discontent so characteristic of US society in the 1960s embracing civil rights, the women’s movement and student protest.

Various anti war organisations were set up including the Vietnam Moratorium Committee which organised large-scale peaceful demonstrations, and the Draft Resistance Movement which campaigned against conscription. Between 1969 and 1970there were 1,800 anti-war demonstrations.

What influence did the anti-war movement have on the outcome of the war?

It is difficult to gauge the impact of the movement on the conduct of the war especially as there was not necessarily a majority of the public, at any one time, opposed to the war.

Extreme events such as the killings at Kent State University in 1970 may well put pressure on Congress to limit the powers of the president to commit troops to Vietnam.

Right wing Republicans have claimed that the war reduced the will of the president to fully prosecute the war and achieve victory.

However, Kennedy and Johnson both showed a lack of total conviction about US involvement in the war. At worst, public opinion made the president even more indecisive.

The antiwar movement was limited because of its own divisions between the radical and liberal groups. Nixon’s policy of Vietnamisation led to a decline in support for the movement.

Nixon’s decision to withdraw US troops was made in a backdrop of anti-war protest but was based on military considerations. He believed that the war could not be won.

Anti war opposition did force a debate on the issue of whether one state, the US, had the right to intervene in the affairs of another state to protect it.

Why did the USA fail to win the war?

There has been much debate among historians about the reasons for US failure in Vietnam.

One theory is the failure of political will – that US presidents did not have the nerve to wage al all out war against Vietnam. Nixon, in his Memoirs, accuses Johnson of gradual escalating US involvement instead an all out prosecution of the war.

How far was it due to the media? The military accused the media of ‘stabbing in the back’ and Johnson accused the media of seriously undermining the war effort.

Yet opinion polls showed that television coverage may have even reinforced attitudes in favour of the war. It was only after 1969 that the constant reporting of deaths and casualties helped produce a feeling of war-weariness.

Other writers have seen it as military failure. Westmoreland pursued the wrong tactics of conventional warfare and showed, like the French before him, little understanding of how to counter guerrilla tactics. US counter-insurgency tactics, such as Search and Destroy missions, did not work.

Air bombing of the North was inappropriate as it lacked specific military and industrial targets.

The only way to defeat guerrilla tactics was to win the support of the local population upon whom theses tactics depended for their success.

US high command failed to appreciate this and, instead, relied too heavily, on superior military technology. The use of napalm and incidents such as Mai Lai simply alienated the Vietnamese people.

Most recent accounts have blamed the failure of the USA to understand the situation in Vietnam. They saw the Vietcong or National Liberation Army as simply a tool of communism rather that a popular national movement.

The USA failed to win over the people of South Vietnam and, in many respects, fuelled their nationalism and support for the Vietcong.

They ignored their culture and past traditions and placed far too much emphasis on the Cold War, an issue of little importance or understanding to the majority of the population.

The Vietcong, on the other hand, were strongly motivated believing passionately in their cause, and carried out very effective guerrilla tactics.

They were backed by China and the Soviet Union, using the Ho Chi Minh Trail to bring supplies to their bases in South Vietnam.

These bases were well hidden in underground bunkers which contained workshops, kitchens, hospitals and storehouses, all connected by a network of narrow tunnels.

They were carefully booby-trapped to kill US soldiers, who might discover them. About 3000 metres of tunnels were built under South Vietnam.

What effects did the war have on Vietnam?

2,000,000 men, women and children were killed.

Over 7,000,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on North Vietnam, more than three times the amount dropped during the Second World War.

Large areas of the country were destroyed. Vietnam was reduced from a major exporter of rice to a country that could not feed itself.

Many mines and other booby traps were left after the war.

People continued to suffer from the effects of chemicals and defoliants.

The consequences of the war for the USA

The war cost $120,000,000,000 and was a tremendous blow to American prestige. It contributed to a loss of confidence in the US government, which was made worse by the revelations about the behaviour of Nixon and Agnew

58,000 US servicemen were killed in Vietnam. 700,000 veterans have suffered from psychological disorders since returning to the USA. More veterans have committed suicide than were killed in the fighting. The changing international diplomatic context

In the early 1970s, relations between East and West were improving. Brezhnev wanted to reduce Soviet military spending so that he could sort out the problems facing the Soviet economy. The most obvious way was by cutting expenditure on arms.

In 1970 Brezhnev agreed to begin Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. They soon became known as SALT, and later SALT I.


The SALT talks led to the signing of the SALT I treaty in 1972. This limited the increase in numbers of nuclear missiles. There would be a five year delay on the building of more missiles. At the end of the five year period a further agreement would be necessary.

The figures agreed were, USA Soviet Union
ICBMs 1000 1600
SLBMs 650 700

A separate treaty restricted the number of ABMs, Anti-Ballistic Missiles.

At the same time the two sides agreed to begin Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction Talks (MBFR). These continued until the 1980s, when there had been more than 300 meeting with almost no agreements. Both sides also agreed o allow each other to use spy satellites to make sure that the numbers were being kept to.

The USA also signed a trade deal to export wheat to the Soviet Union and both sides agreed to develop artistic and sporting links. In 1975 Soviet and US astronauts linked up in Space for the first time.

SALT I was the first time that the Superpowers had reached an agreement on arms limitation, but the talks only dealt with strategic weapons, long-range nuclear weapons.

Agreements did not cover multiple warhead missiles or battlefield weapons (tactical nuclear weapons). In fact the USA continued to produce multiple warheads, at the rate of three a day, throughout the 1970s.

Détente soon covered other areas, however, when in 1975 the USA and the Soviet Union, along with 33 other countries signed the

The Helsinki Agreement on Human Rights

This guaranteed that they would: respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy

Improved relations between the USA and the People’s Republic of China took a rather different route.

The US Table Tennis team was in Japan in 1971 for the 31st World Table Tennis Championship when they received, on 6 April, an invitation to visit China.

From the early years of the People's Republic, sports had played an important role in diplomacy, often incorporating the slogan ‘Friendship First, Competition Second’.

On 12 April 1971 the team and accompanying journalists became the first American sports delegation to set foot in the Chinese capital since 1949.

In February 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon paid his historic visit to China. Two months after Richard Nixon's visit, Zhuang Zedong visited the U.S. as the head of a Chinese table-tennis delegation, from 12-20 April, 1972.

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