Vietnam – Why did the USA withdraw it’s troops in 1973
Vietnam has not always been a united country. In 1954 it was divided between North and South. U. S involvement, as far as troops were concerned, lasted from 1964 until 1973. The reasons why the U. S became involved were that, the war was a civil war between communist North Vietnam, which was supported by China and the Soviet Union, and ‘free’ South Vietnam backed mainly by the USA. The USA, which had been fighting in Vietnam since 1964, was the world’s richest country, with the largest economy, and the most powerful military machine.
Despite this, the superpower of the world was still unable to defeat the 3rd rate South – an East Asian country. This was the first war the USA had ever lost, and in 1973 the USA officially pulled out of Vietnam. This essay will focus on why President Nixon pulled out the troops by 1973. The type of war being fought by the USA in Vietnam was unwinnable. The war was a guerrilla war, mainly against the Vietcong. The Vietcong fought in small groups and used their knowledge of their own countryside to hide from the Americans and to pick the places where they themselves wanted to fight.
The guerrilla army was split into cells; the cells worked together, but didn’t have much knowledge of each other, because this meant if any were captured and tortured, they would not give away too much information. The guerrilla’s used the peasant villages as their bases, and went out into the jungle. They attacked units of the ARVN, and ambushed patrols of American soldiers, then disappeared back into the jungle. When the American’s arrived, there was no sign of the enemy. Out in the jungle, the guerrilla’s never chose to fight unless they were certain of winning.
They often attacked small enemy patrols, usually at night, thus making the American’s suffer a terrible ordeal. The Vietcong had booby traps, sharpened bamboo staves, mines, grenades, and artillery shells, which were all waiting to be stepped on and set off. The guerrilla’s had a much better chance of winning, as they knew the American’s would give in before they did. The guerrilla’s realised that the longer the war lasted, the greater their chances of victory. The American’s had no chance of winning, as they had never fought this type of war before, as there was no frontline. The war just consisted mainly of close combat and ambushes.
A U. S Marine Captain described the problem, “they all dressed alike. They were all Vietnamese. Some of them were Vietcong… the enemy were all around you… ” This was a high-tech war vs. a low-tech war, but as time moved on the guerrilla’s acquired more high-tech weapons, mainly taken from he American’s. The American’s tried to get the Vietnamese to support them using the Strategic Hamlet programme Diem introduced this in 1962. The idea was to re-house people who lived in areas were the Vietcong were strong, and move them into villages protected by moats and fences, so the Vietcong could not enter.
To make them like the South Vietnamese government, the American’s paid for things like medical care, and farm aid to stop them supporting communists. By 1963, two-thirds of the South Vietnamese had been moved into Strategic Hamlets. The programme though, was a disaster. The peasants hated having to move far away, and then have to build new homes, and set up defensive ditches and fences. Also, the South Vietnamese were angered because government officials stole the money given by the American’s, and made them pay for the new houses and aid that they were supposed to be getting for free.
The Strategic Hamlet programme made more people support the Vietcong, not less. At the start of the war, the morale of the troops was good, because many men were volunteers who believed what they were fighting for. As the fighting continued, more ordinary people, particularly blacks, were drafted under the conscription law of 1967 (President Johnson). Morale began to decline, as many soldiers realised the war was going badly, and lost confidence in their officers; this caused many to desert. Drug taking increased, as they could be purchased cheaply, and were easily available throughout South Vietnam.
The problem was so bad, that in 1971, 20000 troops were treated for drug abuse – this seriously reduced the efficiency of U. S soldiers. The white middle class avoided draft by going to college. The massacre at My Lai affected the public opinion of America; American’s were horrified by news of the massacre. The My Lai massacre divided public opinion; the massacre confirmed the feeling, growing since the Tet Offensive of 1968, that the Vietnam War was now a war that America couldn’t win. The guerrilla warfare wore U. S soldiers down, they knew hat by having more ambushes and booby traps, they could break their will to fight.
The American soldiers never knew if they were winning, with the absence of a frontline; this meant they could never have confidence that they were winning, as there was no proof that anyone was actually winning. The USA suffered constant casualties, but had nobody to hit back at, as the Vietcong just seemed to disappear, which caused bad psychological effects due to this type of war. U. S troops heard news of the unpopularity of the war back home, and made them feel there was no point in fighting if the people at home were not praising them, and that were dying for nothing.
Disillusion set in, and this caused the drug taking to increase more rapidly. General Westmoreland thought that a one-year tour of duty would keep the men’s spirits up, but he was wrong. The one-year tour of duty system greatly harmed the American Army in Vietnam, as by the time a solder had learned how to survive and fight, he went home. Platoons were always getting new, inexperienced men. They were called ‘cherries’, and were disliked. Many were new men for friends who had been killed, and worse than that, they made mistakes that cost lives.
The USA did not fight a 10-year war, but a 1-year war 10 times; as soldiers at the end of their ‘tour’ wanted to avoid combat and risks, which meant that as soon as they were capable of fighting a good war, they left and more incapable soldiers started fighting instead; which meant the USA hardly progressed. The USA had failed to win the hearts and minds of the people, which they knew was the only way that they could win the war. They had attempted to win the peasants support by using education programmes, such as speaking in schools and visiting them, and also giving them supplies such as books.
The USA set up medical programmes, which gave medical training, vaccinations, and hospitals to the peasants. The Americans gave material gifts such as fridges, radios, and washing machines, in the hope that giving electricity to a remote village would win over the people of Vietnam. The good that was built up by these tactics was soon offset by the use of policies such as search and destroy, and strategic hamlets. The search and destroy policy consisted of American troops being sent out on missions to find and kill enemy army units.
The policy failed, and instead destroyed whole Vietnamese villages instead in fits of paranoia, making the Vietnamese people feel only hatred for them. The strategic hamlet programme was where people were moved from away from areas where the Vietcong were strong, and then re-housed in villages protected by moats and fences from the Vietcong. The USA gave them things like farm aid and medical care, in the hope that this would sway them towards the South Vietnam government. The programme was a disaster, the peasants hated being moved, and the South Vietnamese were angered because government officials stole the money given by the Americans.
Both of the two programmes made more people support the Vietcong, not less. The war depended mostly on the Vietnam people, and what they wanted. The Americans thought they understood the Vietnamese desires, but instead they misunderstood. The Americans went into Vietnam to save the South Vietnamese from communism, thinking that the people desperately needed their help, when in fact the average Vietnamese peasant actually cared very little about politics. The peasants just wanted to get on with their normal rural life, and the Americans disrupted this.
Because of the sabotage the Americans had caused to their country, the Vietnamese quickly viewed them as just another group of foreign invaders – like the Chinese, French, and Japanese before them. Even though the Vietcong were causing the same disruption, at least they were from the same villages, regions, and country as the people, and understood what the people of Vietnam really wanted. In March 1965, under ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, the Americans began the bombing of North Vietnam. Its aim was to destroy the economy of the North, and stop the support for guerrillas in the South.
The bombing was only intended to last for eight weeks, but instead lasted for eight years; during this time 8 million bombs were dropped, which was over three times the number of bombs dropped in the whole of WW2. The Americans expected the saturation bombing of North Vietnamese cities (such as Hanoi), to result in the North wishing for peace; the bombing actually had the opposite effect though, as it just made the North even more determined to continue. The missions were dangerous for U. S jets and B52 bombers, due to the effective civil defence systems, and defensive batteries of anti-aircraft guns including SAM (surface to air missiles).
The effect of the bombing was limited, as most of Vietnam was still a rural based society, and supplies or weapons, food, medicines etc still came from China and the Soviet Union – this meant that even if the Americans destroyed some factories, they would never stop the North’s supplies. The North Vietnamese used American bombing as a way of motivating their population to keep fighting, as it was a means of increasing anti-American feelings through the use of effective propaganda. They influenced strong feelings of hatred against the Americans, and told them stories about the Americans, which were often either exaggerated or lies.
The more the Americans attacked, the harder the North fought back. The bombing of civilian targets increased anti-US feelings world wide due to the TV and film coverage. There were scenes of schools and hospitals in Vietnam that provided effective propaganda for the anti-war movement back in the states. The American government had always claimed that they were bombing military targets in North Vietnam, and that few civilians were harmed; but a journalist from the New York Times reported on the damage that was being done to civilians by American bombs (some of which were falling on hospitals and schools).
North Vietnam relied heavily on financial, military, and food aid from the nearby communist countries, the USSR and the People’s Republic of China. Without this great political and economic support from Vietnam, America’s chance of success through the bombing would have undoubtedly been much greater. The ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) was the other major problem for the USA in it’s attempt to win the war in Vietnam. The ARVN was weak and unreliable, which had a declining effect on the morale of US troops.
The commitment of the ARVN, and its motivation, rarely matched that of the Vietcong or NVA (North Vietnamese Army). This caused a growing distrust in the ARVN’s will to fight and die for their government. The protest movement (sometimes called the peace movement) began shortly after the start of the war, until into the 1970’s; at its height, millions were involved. The war divided not only the American people, but also the European allies, which made the protest movement an important factor in the American decision to leave Vietnam.
The first protest took place in New York in 1963. Then in 1964, a peace rally in Washington DC was attended by 25,000 people. In 1965more than 3,000 students attended an event at the University of Michigan. By 1967, student protests were becoming less peaceful, and strikes and shouting down government speakers were common. The protesters were pacifists, and opposed the war because they believed that war and killing were morally wrong.
Placards showed Johnson as a war criminal, and people chanted ‘Hey Hey LBJ how many kids did you kill today? They did this, as they blamed Johnson for the growing failure of the war. The casualty list from Vietnam was continually rising more and more, including the scenes of the body bags. The number of casualties and death made more and more Americans question their country’s involvement in the war. Vietnam was the first televised war, and was intensively covered by television cameras as well as by newspaper reporters. The journalists argued that they merely reported what they saw and heard, and told the truth when the government did not.
Some journalists were openly against the war, but others began to oppose it only after seeing civilians killed, or coming to the conclusion that the war could not be won. Officers and soldiers welcomed journalists, as they wanted people at home to know what they were doing and enduring; and wanted the journalists to tell the real story. Modern technology meant that people throughout the world could see as well as read about the war as it was being fought. At first, the US television networks limited their broadcast or combat scenes.
Still, what they did show upset some US officials, who wanted to censor the television reporting, as they feared it would weaken public support for the war. In fact, the broadcasts DID have this effect, as for many Americans, seeing their young men fighting, suffering and dying, was a shocking experience. They saw soldiers appearing confused as to what they were doing in a country thousands of miles from home. They also saw pictures of young children with napalm wounds, innocent people getting hurt or wounded, and families crying, as their homes were burnt; these images made more and more Americans question the war.
The My Lai massacre also contributed to people’s hatred, when a patrol entered the Vietnamese village of My Lai, and attacked and killed 347 men, women, children, and babies. At first the government kept the massacre a secret, but when the news got out, only Lieutenant Calley was convicted. Most American’s saw how inhuman the war was because of this. They thought of themselves as the ‘good guys’ and wanted to think of the Vietcong as the ‘bad guys’. They were horrified to find out that their own American soldiers might be committing such horrible cold-blooded murders.
It was because of this and the media coverage that American society began to split into two groups – For the war, and against the war. The Presidents problems increased after 30th January 1968, when the communists launched the Tet offensive. Using hidden weapons and fighters, they launched a series of surprise attacks in South Vietnamese cities. Thousands of South Vietnamese civilians were massacred, including those in the My Lai massacre. The fact that this had a lot of TV coverage meant that this had a big effect on people. As a cameraman was filming a Vietcong prisoner, the Saigon police Chief walked over and shot him in the head.
All the viewers saw was a man executed without a trial. Many Americans decided that the South Vietnamese government was not worth saving, thus making President Johnson lose popularity, which made him not stand in the election of 1968. In April 1971 500,000 people took part in an anti-war protest in Washington, and the main people leading the protest were Vietnam Veterans, which showed that those who had actually experienced war, were extremely against it. Two weeks later, though, 15,000 people marched in favour of the war. The difference in numbers showed that support for the war at home had been lost.
In a democracy if this happens it is almost impossible for a government to continue fighting indefinitely, thus politically the war was a loser. Many American’s were against the war, due to the raise in taxes. The high cost of the war, meant that spending on weapons was having an impact, $20 billion a year, social programmes such as education, health, and housing had to be cut back. The American’s began to realise what fighting the war was doing to the USA, and the financial impacts of the costs, thus causing both social and political division.
The American image abroad was severely reduced, thus reducing support for the war. Both politically and militarily, the war in Vietnam became unwinnable. Voting is extremely important, as no president in a democracy can hope to keep power if he follows a policy that is universally disliked by the electorate. Nixon had got to power by promising to get the US out of the war and securing ‘peace with honour’. It was now time to deliver his promise. There was strong congressional opposition. The Left (Democratic Party) fundamentally opposed the war, whereas the right (Republican Party) fundamentally opposed losing he war.
With on the ground troop numbers decreasing, the Democratic dominated congress was inevitably about to stop any further funding for the war. Nixon got the peace terms signed in January 1973 through a combination of Diplomatic and Military pressure. Some said that the ‘peace with honour’ had been obtained, and this was argued favourably. This was the case, as in 1973, the South Vietnamese were left with the world’s fourth largest air force and an army of a million, which were equipped with the latest American technology. The Communists, in contrast, were a depleted force that was low on men, weapons, ammunition, and food.
However, without the much-needed American support, it was uncertain how much longer the South of Vietnam would last. In conclusion, the USA pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, due to the fact they were fighting the wrong type of war in the wrong place at the wrong time, the public support for the war in Vietnam declined the longer it went on, politically and financially the war became a loser for both politicians and political parties in the USA, and finally the American image in the world had greatly suffered because of it’s involvement in Vietnam.
Many American officials had been looking to get out of Vietnam as early as 1968. The Vietnamization of the war, which was Nixon’s policy, lead to the gradual removing of the US troops, until by 1973 all the US troops were out of Vietnam. The Paris peace treaty was signed, and the US involvement came to an end when the last US troops left Saigon in April 1973.