Centuries of War on Vietnamese Soil
Vietnamese history details many years of war throughout many centuries. It took years for the wounds of the Vietnam War to heal and the country is still deeply scarred. Recent economic growth and development has resulted in improved economic stability, and the country appears to be flourishing. To understand the blog posts that are to come, I feel it is necessary to first briefly explain my understanding of Vietnamese history.
Legends tell the story of people travelling from the islands in Indonesia to colonise Vietnam (this occurred 8000-200BC), developing communities in the North around the Red River in the Tonkin Delta. The Champa Kingdom already ruled the Mekong Delta in the south, and it was thousands of years before Vietnam grew to include both the north and south.
Chinese colonisation of Vietnam started as early as 200BC and lasted over a thousand years. Rebellion against Chinese rule was common, with frequent attacks launched against the Chinese armies. Significantly more powerful, the Chinese armies were easily able to contain the rebels and maintained control of Vietnam.
Like China, Vietnam relied on dynastic lineage as the source of their rulers. A strong dynasty would surge forwards and continue to develop their strength, potentially ruling for years. In 938AD, the Vietnamese utilised the fall of the Tang dynasty in China and finally defeated the weakened Chinese armies. The emperors of this time came from the Ly Dynasty and were strong, ruling Vietnam from the 11th to 13th century and maintaining the countries independence. Their strength allowed them to forge forwards, claiming land from the Champs in the south. They were also responsible for instating the first university (The Temple of Literature in Hanoi), advancing agricultural practices and organising a form of flood control along the Red River.
In the 15th century, China recaptured control of Vietnam. They completely overhauled Vietnamese society, taking national archives and ‘intellectuals’ back to China whilst enforcing slave labour and heavy taxation throughout Vietnam. Yet again, there was backlash against Chinese rule. In 1428 the Lam Son uprising was successful and Le Loi lead the people to independence. This inevitably resulted in Le Loi announcing himself as emperor of a new dynasty. Le Loi had a successful rule, extending Vietnam’s territory to include the Mekong Delta in the south and pushing the western boarders further into Laos.
17th AND 18th CENTURY VIETNAM
North and South Vietnam remained quite divided throughout the 17th and 18th centuries; however, both areas suffered the same problems. While wealthy families continued to extend their land ownership, the peasants worked the land. Their wages were so low and the cost of rice so high people were dying of starvation.
Three brothers (Nguyen Hue, Nguyen Nhac and Nguyen Lu) started the Tay son Rebellion and eventually took control of the Vietnam. Nguyen Hue announced himself as emperor, changing his name to Quang Trung in the process. Once in control, the brothers created a new taxation model specifically designed to suit the Vietnamese. They improved women’s rights and focused on education, aiming to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor.
After his death in 1792, Quang Trung left the throne to his 10-year-old son. Realising his weakness, the young Nguyen Anh accepted assistance from the French. In 1802 he announced himself Emperor Gia Long and in a move that was extremely unpopular amongst the people, he reverted to old taxation policies and revoked women’s rights. Subsequent rulers followed in Emperor Gia Long’s footsteps and continued to rule with similar policies, seemingly oblivious to the uprising and famine amongst the people.
The French first arrived in Vietnam in 1847. Emperor Tu Duc reigned at this time and was coerced into signing a series of treaties, essentially handing much of his power to the French. Vietnam became a French colony in 1872, in a political movement by the French who aimed to use Indochina (the collective term the French used when discussing Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) strategically to improve their international trade and capitalism.
The Vietnamese resisted French rule from the beginning. The countryside was heavily exploited, the leaders had no power, and consequently the people continued to struggle. It was during this time, a young Ho Chi Minh (then known as Nguyen Tat Thanh) started to study politics in Paris.
HO CHI MINH
After leaving Vietnam in 1911, Ho Chi Minh spent years living abroad, eventually becoming a founding member of the French Communist Party. He received training in Russia and spent time in China, where he organised a revolution with Vietnamese exiles. In the 1930’s, Ho Chi Minh spent two years in British jail for his involvement in revolutionary actions before returning to Russia and eventually Vietnam. In 1941, Ho Chi Minh established the League for the Independence in Vietnam, commonly known as Viet Minh, a group who fought for independence for Vietnam.
WORLD WAR II, JAPANESE RULE AND INITIAL VIET MINH MOVEMENT
When the French entered WWII, Japan took power of Vietnam. After the Japanese depleted rice stores and several floods, 2 million Vietnamese people died from severe famine (the population was 10 million at that time). The Viet Minh opposed Japanese rule, receiving assistance from the US government to aid their efforts. As WWII was ending, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh controlled much of the rural areas in North Vietnam. The French returned and remained in control of the south and some cities in the north.
In November 1946, a war broke out between the French and Viet Minh after the French heavily shelled Haiphong, killing hundreds of civilians. War ensued for the following eight years, with thousands of casualties from both sides. On the 7th of May 1954 the French conceded defeat, ending their reign of Indochina.
A temporary divide was placed at Ben Hai River during the Geneva Conference on the 8th of May 1954, and the North and South were to exist as two separate zones. National elections were intended to be held in July 1956, where a common government could be elected and the North and South would become one nation.
NORTH AND SOUTH VIETNAM
Ngo Dinh Diem, an anti-communist catholic, took power in the South while the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with Ho Chi Minh as President, resumed control of the North. The supposed elections of 1956 never took place. Diem, who was supported by the US, feared Ho Chi Minh would win the elections and the US feared another communist country in Asia. The North and South continued to exist as independent nations.
The National Liberation Front (NLF) was formed on December 20, 1960. They initiated plans to overthrow the South Vietnamese Government that would ultimately lead to the reunification of the North and South. Saigon soon referred to the group as Viet Cong (VC), short for Viet Nam Cong San, or the Vietnam Communists. The NLF or Viet Cong was a political organisation with its own army, which had both guerrilla forces and regular army units. In the early 1960s, troops were regularly sent to the South along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a military trail that travelled through Laos and Cambodia linking North and South Vietnam. Some considered the trail to be one of the greatest modern military achievements. The troops were able to carry out covert missions, gradually gaining control of areas of the south. The Ho Chi Minh Trail enabled the constant supply of manpower and materials the troops needed to continue advancing their movement. By 1965 Saigon barely had a government, the North had successfully infiltrated and nearly overthrown the Diem government.
The US became involved in the Vietnam War in the early 1950’s. Initially, they had an advisory role, training South Vietnamese troops in the use of US firearms. It wasn’t until 1964 when they became involved in active warfare.
In August 1964, there were reports North Vietnamese forces attacked two US destroyers. Initially, the US claimed these attacks were unprovoked. It was later revealed the first destroyer had instigated a commando raid in North Vietnamese waters, and the second destroyer was never attacked. It is thought an electrical storm played havoc with their radars, giving the impression there were enemy vessels in the area. They were never engaged in open warfare and there were no vessels ever sighted.
US President Johnson ‘retaliated’, ordering extensive bombing of the North. Several days later US Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolve, which in a sense allowed the President free reign to do whatever he pleased without Congress input.
After the first major turning point in 1964 (which lead to increased US involvement), the second significant action was the launch of the Tat Offensive by the North. On the 30th of January 1968, which was also Lunar New Year, the VC and NVA launched major attacks in every province in South Vietnam. While this caught the South and US troops by surprise, they were quick to respond, engaging the VC and NVA in open battle.
Aided largely by Russia and China, the VC and NVA continued to engage in war with the US and South Vietnamese. On May 10, 1968 peace negotiations started between the US and North Vietnam. After years of negotiation, the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 27, 1973, ending the US involvement and achieving a cease-fire between the North and South.
For two years following the Paris Peace Accords, the NVA rebuilt its army, ultimately planning to continue their crusade to reunify the North and South. President Nixon pledged ongoing support of the South; consequently their army was left considerably weaker than the North.
The NVA struck on March 5th, 1975. Much to their surprise, they advanced easily and without any counter attack or airstrike from the US. On April 30, the Ho Chi Minh Offensive was able to continue their crusade into Saigon US troops fled. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam was formed in 1976, uniting North and South Vietnam as one country.
THE SOCIALIST REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM
On the first day of their victory, the communists renamed Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City, in honour of their famed leader Ho Chi Minh. Unprepared for such a rapid takeover, the communists were yet to make specific plans on how to integrate the North and South. Majority of the population had suffered extreme hardships, the countryside had been chemically destroyed and heavily bombed, and both the economy and politics were extremely dysfunction. In many ways, the war was far from over.
It was rapidly decided the best way to transit to a fully integrated country was to implement socialism ideologies. Essentially for thousands of South Vietnamese this meant lengthy imprisonment in re-education camps, where they were held in terrible conditions and forced to complete heavy manual labour tasks whilst learning the ways of the communists.
During this time, the Khmer Rouge was also engaging Vietnam in war. In 1978 the Khmer Rouge had gained control of the Mekong Delta. In retaliation, the Vietnamese launched major operations, which ultimately led to Vietnamese troops storming Phnom Penh and assisting in the initial overthrow of Pol Pot (see the Cambodian History blog for more information on Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge).
WEAPONRY USED IN VIETNAM WAR
Writing this blog post in slight retrospect, we have had the opportunity to visit a few historic sights and museums that have highlighted the various weapons used. Consequently, I felt it was important to discuss the weaponry used in the war and the lasting effects it continues to have in Vietnam today.
The NVA and VC were primarily supplied weaponry from the Chinese and Russians. Rifles were largely AK-47s, which they used in conjunction with submachine guns and machine guns. The NVA and VC also had access to rockets and rocket propelled grenades. While these are both designed to combat tanks, they were well adapted to be used against personnel. Without any aircraft, the NVA and VC became proficient with anti-aircraft missiles that challenged the US helicopters significantly. Lastly, and most fascinatingly, the NVA and VC used grenades, booby traps and mines. Used largely in guerrilla-type warfare, unexploded bombs dropped by US aircrafts were dismantled and reconfigured to be used as grenades, various types of booby traps and mines. Large exhibitions have been developed to demonstrate this at the Cu Chi tunnels.
In comparison, the US had weaponry that was far more sophisticated and had devastating effects. They had access to M16 rifles, armoured tanks, flame-throwing tanks, self-propelled guns and helicopters. Their vital advantage was access to aerial technology, not only bombing Vietnam heavily, but also conducting secret bombing missions in both Cambodia (check out the Cambodia History blog to see how this affected Cambodia) and Laos (check out the Vientiane blog, which outlines the lasting legacy this bombing has on Laos today). Significant damage was done to all major road and rail networks, bridges and cities. The Ho Chi Minh trail (which ran through parts of Laos and Cambodia) was also heavily targeted.
The US also used herbicides to clear large areas of vegetation. Between 1962 and 1971 they sprayed 75,700,000L of chemical herbicides in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The goal was to destroy the crops used as a food source for the troops and eliminate the forestation the NVA and VC used as cover. This also forced all the villagers living in small rural communities into the cities controlled by the US, further decreasing the NVA and VC support systems.
Agent Orange was the most common herbicide used, with dioxin listed as one of the main ingredients. On average, Agent Orange was 13 times more concentrated than what was considered safe. Consequently, the concentration in the soil and water was, at times, hundreds of times higher than a safe level. In 1966 the United Nations charged the US with violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which outlines the use of chemical and biological weapons. The US argued it was not a weapon as they were not targeting humans, purely using a herbicide to defoliate enemy territory. The consequences of Agent Orange are still seen today and will be discussed further in subsequent blogs.
While many western countries have an ageing population, nearly 70% of the population in Vietnam is under 40 years old. As I mentioned earlier, I am writing this blog post in retrospect and have already had the pleasure of spending some time in Vietnam, which has allowed me some insight into modern Vietnam. After spending some time talking with several young women, it is clear the Vietnamese youth are extremely driven and hard working. They have been raised to believe the key to a better life is through education and hard work. One young women told me how many of her parents generation had suffered greatly and consequently have worked extremely hard to provide a better life for their children. In a country so rich with culture, she strives towards living a more western lifestyle, keeping her skin covered so it doesn’t tan and she dreams of travel to western countries.
The country has been thriving through a period of sustained growth and development. Reportedly, standards of living have generally improved, as has the education and healthcare systems. The economy is also rapidly improving at a rate of 8% per annum. While complicated, the Vietnamese politics can be explained simply, there is one Communist Party who has held power since the completion of the war. The state also own and control many of the large companies in Vietnam, throughout key sectors including oil, coal and rubber production.
Vietnam today is a fascinating place and one I look forward to exploring more. It is obvious the country has a haunted history and with hundreds of years of war on home soil it is difficult to comprehend how the country and its people have survived. We have only travelled such a small distance in Vietnam and I am already fascinated with the people, culture, countryside and food. For more stories on Vietnam through my eyes, keep a look out for the blog posts to follow.