In November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated. This event shocked the entire nation and is indelibly written into the memories of those who lived at that time. In the years that followed the firm political foundations and inter-party cooperation that had existed since Pearl Harbor began to crumble.
President Kennedy had gotten the United States deeply involved in Vietnam during his presidency. Vietnam, along with Laos and Cambodia, had been part of French Indo- China. After World War II the French tried to reestablish control, but the native peoples rebelled, and the French were finally ousted in 1954. Vietnam was divided into two states, North Vietnam being under Communist control and South Vietnam being run by an unstable quasi-military junta. The Soviet Union and China supported North Vietnam; and the United States, as part of its world-wide effort to prevent the spread of Communism, gave its backing to South Vietnam.
In the early 1960s North Vietnam was aggressively pushing its policy to take over the south, and President Kennedy began providing military advisors and materiel aid to the South Vietnamese government. The Vietnamese situation deteriorated even further in 1964, and President Johnson decided that more must be done. He pledged our nation’s full and unequivocal support for South Vietnam in its struggle against North Vietnam. The situation appeared to be much like that which the United States faced in 1950 when the North Koreans invaded South Korea. Our nation’s leaders believed it was of critical importance that we contest the Communists as they attempted to expand their sphere of control. If we failed to act, what would prevent Communist expansion in other areas of Southeast Asia? This was their logic, and thus began the war in Vietnam, a conflict that bitterly divided our nation.
Beginning in 1964, United States’ troops and other military resources began to flow into South Vietnam, and Americans became increasingly involved in combat. Initially there was little opposition to the war, but within a few years that changed. There were serious problems with the way the military campaign was being conducted. First, the decision was made to restrict our ground forces to fighting in the south and not attempt to overrun North Vietnam. This was because of the very legitimate fear that invading North Vietnam would bring Communist China into the conflict. Of course, we bombed Viet Cong installations and supply routes, but that was not enough to stop the movement of their men and supplies to the south. Second, it was very difficult to distinguish a Vietnamese enemy from a Vietnamese neutral or friend. The conflict thus assumed all the ugliness of guerrilla warfare.
As the war went on and casualties mounted there was increasing criticism of our involvement. Even those who had initially supported the war were appalled by reports of atrocities committed by our troops as they attempted to fight back against an often unseen and unknown enemy. One incident was particularly disturbing. On March 16, 1968, as many as 500 men, women, and children were brutalized and murdered by American soldiers in the village of My Lai, Vietnam. Military authorities attempted to cover up the incident, but the story was eventually revealed, and the nation was horrified.
The communist Tet Offensive of early January 1968 also had a profound effect on attitudes about the war. American civilians had been assured that we were winning the war and that it might soon be over. The Tet Offensive seemed to indicate otherwise. Although the Americans and the South Koreans won the battles, the size and intensity of the Viet Cong assault indicated that the war was far from being won. Indeed, it appeared that the conflict could go on for many more years. Opinion makers in the press began to turn against the war, and many citizens began to lose their faith in our government’s honesty. Mounting casualties and further reports of atrocities also had an effect. The war in all its ugliness was on constant display on television.
Some of our more hawkish citizens wished to untie the military’s hands and unleash a full assault upon North Vietnam and, if need be, Communist China. Most Americans, however, just wanted a way out. Eventually it came down to three basic points of view. One: unleash our military power in a full-scale assault on North Vietnam and bring the war to a victorious conclusion. Two: build up our South Vietnamese allies to the point that they could defend themselves and then make an honorable exit from the conflict. Three: declare the war over and bring our troops home regardless of the situation on the ground.
Meanwhile the political turmoil at home was becoming more and more intolerable. Draft card burning became the rage among college students, especially at the more liberal schools. Numbers of young Americans fled to Canada to avoid military service. Then, in 1968, came the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Though not directly related to the war, these murders helped to tear America even further apart. The nation was in an uproar. The Democratic Party Convention that summer was a virtual riot. Hubert Humphrey, a capable and honorable man, was nominated, but his party was seriously divided. The Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, won the Presidency with a pledge of “peace with honor” in Vietnam.
After the election Nixon revealed details of his plan to build up South Vietnamese strength and gradually transfer war responsibility to that nation while putting ever increasing pressure on North Vietnam to stop the fighting. Despite bitter opposition from the “immediate peace at any cost” crowd, President Nixon initiated his plan. It was difficult going, for the North Vietnamese government was most reluctant to give up on its goal of uniting Vietnam under Communist leadership. As part of the President’s strategy, the ferocity of our air attacks on North Vietnam intensified, and there were attempts to interdict Viet Cong supply lines through Cambodia and Laos. Nixon was determined to force the enemy into serious peace negotiations. Meanwhile, anti-war protests continued at home, leading to bloody clashes between students and National Guard troops and police at Kent State and Jackson State.
The war raged on throughout Nixon’s first term, but American casualties gradually decreased as more and more of the ground fighting responsibility was transferred to the South Vietnamese. In November 1972, Nixon was reelected in a landslide. Vietnamese peace accords were signed in January 1973, but some fighting continued. Nevertheless, American involvement in actual combat ended in August 1973.
Less than two years later, after Nixon’s resignation, the North Vietnamese violated the peace agreement and began a full assault against South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese army collapsed quickly, and we did little to help them. Political opinion in the United States would not support re-involvement by the American military. With the fall of Saigon in April 1975 the war was finally over, but the scars on the American body politic remain.
While the fighting had raged in Vietnam, American military personnel sometimes experienced hostility from their fellow citizens, even though most were in the service because of the draft rather than by choice (conscription only ended in June 1973). An army of short-term citizen soldiers was not prepared for the horrors of guerrilla warfare. When their miserable experience of fighting an unseen enemy in the Vietnamese jungles and swamps was combined with the obvious disdain of their fellow citizens, esprit de corps and discipline among a few of our military units suffered. That, along with occasional poor small unit leadership, sometimes led to incidents of atrocity. On the other hand, the vast majority of our combatants performed admirably under extremely difficult conditions, and close bonds were often formed with their South Vietnamese allies, military and civilian. Regardless, as soldiers returned from the war they often faced disrespect from the anti-war protesters, and years passed before Vietnam War veterans received proper recognition for their service.
The Watergate break-in occurred during the summer of 1972, and that incident was a direct result of the Vietnam War. During the early years of his presidency Nixon had become enraged by the frequent leaks of highly sensitive and classified information to the press, usually by opponents of the war within his own administration. To stop these leaks, the White House formed what became known as a “plumbers’” unit. Among other activities, this group conducted some illegal break-ins to get evidence against the anti-war activists. As the 1972 presidential campaign began, some members of the President’s reelection committee decided to use the “plumbers” to get information on their Democratic Party opposition. This was an incredibly stupid decision. Nixon’s reelection was virtually assured, and no undercover operation was needed. Nevertheless, the decision was made, and this led to the Watergate break-in. It is probable that Nixon did not know about the planned break-in beforehand, but his political paranoia was a contributing factor, and there is no doubt that he was involved in the cover-up following the plumbers’ arrest. The exposure of his involvement led to his eventual resignation in the summer of 1974. The entire sordid business left another deep scar on the American psyche and caused many citizens to have a profound and lasting distrust of their government and the military.