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The USA and Vietnam : Failure Abroad and at Home, 1964–1975

Key issue: How effective were guerrilla tactics during the Vietnam War?

The theory of Guerrilla warfare
Guerrilla tactics, 1964–1968
The US response to guerrilla tactics: Operation Rolling Thunder; ‘Hearts and Minds’; Agent Orange and Napalm; Search and Destroy
The My Lai Massacre, 1968.

Key issue: How did the coverage of the Vietnam War in the USA lead to demands for peace?

TV and media coverage of the war, from the Gulf of Tonkin to the evacuation of Saigon
Protest movements in the USA, 1968–1973
The public reaction to the My Lai Massacre, the trial of Lieutenant Calley
The Kent State University protest, 1970
The Fulbright Hearings, 1971.

Key issue: Why were the US actions to end the Vietnam War unsuccessful?

The Tet Offensive and its impact on the war, 1968
Attacks on Laos and Cambodia, 1970
US bombing of the North and attacks on Laos and Cambodia, 1970 –1972
The Paris Peace Conference and US withdrawal
The fall of Saigon, 1975.

Key issue: How effective were guerrilla tactics during the Vietnam War?

The theory of Guerrilla warfare

"The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue." Mao Zedong.

Guerilla warfare is quite unlike conventional warfare. Instead of pitched battles and clear front lines this method of waging war opts for a range of alternatives. Hit and Run attacks are frequent and an 'behind enemy lines' approach is adopted. The theory is simple. In order to defeat an enemy that has a major advantage in terms of training and the quality of arms and equipment you need to be stealthy in your approach. You need to reMyn hidden from the enemy as far as is possible and make targetted attacks that will inflict maximum damage with a mimimum of risk.

Guerrilla tactics, 1964–1968

Vietminh Directives:

(1) Not to do what is likely to damage the land and crops or spoil the houses and belongings of the people.

(2) Not to insist on buying or borrowing what the people are not willing to sell or lend.

(3) Never to break our word.

(4) Not to do or speak what is likely to make people believe that we hold them in contempt.

(5) To help them in their daily work (harvesting, fetching firewood carrying water, sewing, etc.)

(6) In spare time, to tell amusing, simple, and short stories useful to the Resistance, but not to betray secrets.

(7) Whenever possible to buy commodities for those who live far from the market.

(8) To teach the population the national script and elementary hygiene.

These directives of the Vietminh offer an insight into the way that they approached Guerilla warfare. A key part of their tactics was to do as little as possible to upset the local population. There is a clear policy of trying to help villagers, to get them 'on side' so that the Vietminh can work in the area more effectively. Why was this neccessary? A guerilla campaign relies on reMyning hidden, often behind enemy lines, for much of the time. Working with the local population helps to make sure that they will be less likely to give the US forces information about the whereabouts of the enemy and means that tunnels and depots can be built close to villages.

Methods used by the Vietcong:

In Southern Vietnam the Vietcong operated in small cells of 8-10 men. These units would dig tunnels in and around towns and villages from where they could launch attacks. These tunnels had booby trapped entrances and often were sufficient in size to house bomb making factories, conference rooms and large stores. The largest of these tunnel systems were Iron Triangle and Cu Chi. The Cu Chi tunnel system contained over 200 miles of tunnel and was only 20 miles away from the South Vietnamese capital city, Saigon.

By laying out minefields the Vietcong made patrolling incredibly difficult for US forces as they would have to slowly clear a way through difficult terrain. This made the patrols easier targets for the Vietcong and resulted in some 10,000 US personnel having limbs severed by bombs. The Vietcong also made use of mines laid by US and Australian Forces! In 1967 the Australian Forces constructed a barrier and minefield some 11 kilometres long in an attempt to stop regular units of the NLF attacking from North Vietnam. The Vietcong, with the help of sympathetic local peasants, lifted many of these mines and relaid them on patrol routes, or in the case of M16 mines, they laid them close to roads and shot at them as patrols walked past - similar to moder day uses of roadside bombs.

These tunnel systems were regularly resupplied from North Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh trail was a series of routes along the Vietnamese borders with Cambodia and Laos. It ran through dense jungle and was particularly difficult for US forces to patrol. In places the series of supply routes was 80 kilometres wide and in ttal the route ran for over 1000km in length. It is thought that some 40,000 people were involved in Myntaining the supply routes.

Battlefield Vietnam: Guerilla Tactics. Part of a larger exhibition about the war in Vietnam from PBS.

An Australian experience of Vietcong minefields.

Guerilla Tactics, from the Spartacus encyclopedia.

History Learning Site. Article about the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The US response to guerrilla tactics: Operation Rolling Thunder; ‘Hearts and Minds’; Agent Orange and Napalm; Search and Destroy

Guerilla warfare is incredibly difficult to defend yourself against. For starters, you can't see the enemy until the last minute. The US response to the increased use of Guerilla tactics involved a massive expansion of their involvement in the war. They decided to launch a huge bombing offensive against North Vietnam which was intended to wreak havoc on the North's capacity to wage war and to have a significant impact on public opinion in the north. This bombing campaign was called Operation Rolling Thunder. Operation Rolling Thunder began in March 1965. Initial targets were largely designed to have a psychlogical impact but soon the list of targets was extended to include military bases, factories and the transportation network in North Vietnam. If these targets could be destroyed the supply of Guerilla's in South Vietnam would have to halt, or at least be significantly weakened. The bombing campaign was limited though. President Johnson was wary of upsetting the Chinese or Soviet Union. To try and ensure that these two communist superpowers did not become directly involved in the war, Johnson insisted on a number of restrictions to the bombing. There was a 'no fly' corridor along the Vietnamese border with China and bombing would not take place in the vicinity of Hanoi, the Capital City, or the port of Haiphong. The bombing campaign lasted until November 1968. Historians have mixed views about how successful the operation was. Some argue that the North was on the verge of economic meltdown as a result of the campaign whilst others say that the evidence suggests that the campaign had a limited impact on the Norths impact to wage war. The US military suffered heavy losses of aircraft and crews with the US Airforce losing 506 planes, the Navy 397 and the Marine Corps 19.

Another response to the Guerilla tactics was to try and remove the foliage that enabled the Vietcong to hide. The logic here being that if there is nothing to hide behind, the tactics are not possible. To try and achieve this the US dropped herbicides and defoliants in huge quantities. The most famous of these chemicals was referred to as 'Agent Orange' due to its colour. The objectives behind the use of these chemicals were clear. First they would reduce the cover available to the Vietcong, making it easier to fight them. Second, it would force peasants to move into urban areas as the use of these weapons would make it impossible for them to farm: and if they moved to US dominated urban areas, they couldn't feed and support the Vietcong. Over 5 million acres of land were destroyed through use of chemicals in Vietnam. The side effects of the use of these chemicals turned out to be horrific. Almost 5 million people were exposed to the chemicals. 400,000 of these people were killed or Mymed by their exposure and half a million babies were born with defects caused by the chemicals.

To reduce the risk of patrols being ambushed by hidden Vietcong the US made use of Napalm. Napalm is a chemical agent that burns at approximately 800 degress. The chemical sticks to skin and is virtually impossible to remove. Napalm would be fired from a flamethrower into tunnels and areas where the Vietcong were thought to be hiding. It was also dropped from aircraft into areas where the Vietcong supply lines or forces were thought to be.

Napalm explosion

A Napalm bomb exploding, 1966.

The use of Napalm was controversial. US forces weren't just targetting precise military targets such as the tunnel complexes. As shown in the photograph above, the substance was also dropped in large quantities on villages. Whilst the aim was to to exterminate the threat of the Vietcong in these villages, the tactic also led to many civilian injuries and deaths.

The My Lai Massacre, 1968.

My Lai was a small village with approximately 700 inhabitants. It was located on a route that the Vietcong were using during the Tet Offensive and was identified as a primary location in which enemy troops were likely to be hiding or supplied from. As a result, Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division were ordered to enter the village on March 16th 1968, with an order to, "go in there aggressively, close with the enemy and wipe them out for good." (Colonel Oran K. Henderson). Following artillery fire and suppressing fire from gunships, Charlie company entered My Lai. When they entered they found no obvious signs of the enemy, though would have feared that the Vietcong were hiding in the village. One platoon, led by Lt. William Calley, opened fire on a 'suspected enemy position'. The killing of civilians had begun. Following this the village became the scene of carnage.

"Soldiers went berserk, gunning down unarmed men, women, children and babies. Families which huddled together for safety in huts or bunkers were shown no mercy. Those who emerged with hands held high were murdered." BBC, Murder in the name of war. 1998.

The exact number of people who died at My Lai has never been agreed. A US official investigation suggests that 347 people were murdered. The My lai memorial lists 504 people whilst other figures range from 175 upwards.

The indiscriminate killing was witnessed by helicopter crews. One of these crews, piloted by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson jnr landed and made attempts to intervene. The first attempt failed. Upon taking off after asking for children to be protected, the crew saw the group being machine gunned. Following this the crew landed again and used themselves as a shield whilst loading civilians onto their helicopter for evacuation.


"It looks like a bloodbath down there! What the hell is going on?" Hugh Thompson

"I did not see anyone alive when we left the village." Private First Class Robert Maples

"[The 1st Battalion] members had killed at least 175–200 Vietnamese men, women, and children. The evidence indicates that only 3 or 4 were confirmed as Viet Cong although there were undoubtedly several unarmed VC (men, women, and children) among them and many more active supporters and sympathizers. One man from the company was reported as wounded from the accidental discharge of his weapon." Peers Report, March 1970.

"There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai, I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry." Lt Calley, speaking in 2009.

Key issue: How did the coverage of the Vietnam War in the USA lead to demands for peace?

TV and media coverage of the war, from the Gulf of Tonkin to the evacuation of Saigon

Early coverage of the Vietnam war tended to be quite supportive of the cause and portrayed the soldiers as heroes. For example one colonel was interviewed whilst in hospital to have a leg amputated, his words were:

"I said hell, they can't be right around in there. So I didn't call bombs and napalm on these people. But that's where they were. I'm sure that's where they were. God damn it. I hate to put napalm on these women and children. I just didn't do it. I said, they can't be there." Marine Colonel Yunck.

Interviews such as this one presented the conflict in a positive light with admirable aims and brave, caring soldiers.

As the war continued the coverage shanged. More grusesome images were shown and despite military success against the Tet Offensive, the media coverage began to suggest that the war was unwinnable.

"'To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.to say that we are mired in a bloody stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion." TV anchorman Walter Cronkite, CBS News.

The Tet Offensive changed the way that the war was reported. Research shows us that:

"Before Tet, journalists described 62 percent of their stories as victories for the United States, 28 percent as defeats, and 2 percent as inconclusive. After Tet, 44 percent of the battles were deemed victories, 32 percent defeats, and 24 percent inconclusive." (Hallin, 1986, p.161-162)

Alongside this was an increase in the amount of coverage given to images of injured and dead civilians and statistics relating to US casualties. These contributed to a changing national opinion about the war.

The My Lai massacre and the subsequent investigation and trial of Lt Calley was subject to intense TV scrutiny.

Following the election of Richard Nixon the TV coverage shifted from combat related stories to the anti-war movement and the political scenario. From 1970 unless US withdrawal only 14% of stories about the war related to combat.

Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran

How Media coverage of Vietnam changed America

The Myth of the Media's Role in Vietnam

Vietnam on Television

Protest movements in the USA, 1968–1973

Protests about the Vietnam war began almost as soon as the US became involved. The protests grew from 1968 onwards for a variety of reasons:

The Draft. The way in which the Draft worked was seen to be discriminatory. College students were able to avoid being called up which meant that the Draft was predominantly aimed at the poor and in particular the Black American populations.

Media Coverage. The changing way in which the Media reported the war and incidents such as the My Lai massacre angered many Americans. They saw many young men coming home in body bags, atrocities being carried out by US soldiers and the impression given by the media was that the war was unwinnable. People also questioned the need to be involved in Vietnam. Public Opinion polls conducted each month in America showed that public support for US involvement in the war dropped from 59% in March 1966 to 35% in August 1968 and just 28% by May 1971.

The protests took several forms.

Student protests. Several student organisations were established to oppose US involvement in Vietnam. These included Student Libertarian Movement, established in 1972. Student protests took the form of 'teach ins', marches and rallies.

Mass rallies and marches. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement these saw large nmbers of people march in demonstration against the war. In 1967 over 400,000 people marched from Central Park to the UN headquarters to make their views clear. Details of other marches and rallies can be found on this page.

Music. Protests against the war were also influenced by many popular entertainers of the time. Music festivals often focussed on the anti-war theme and many songs were written about the war.

The public reaction to the My Lai Massacre, the trial of Lieutenant Calley

Time Magazine. Article from 1969 outlining the international response to the My Lai massacre.

Spartacus Encyclopedia. Various accounts and reports relating to the My Lai massacre.

PBS. Overview of the investigations into the massacre.

My Lai: a brief history with documents. Excerpt of a book about the massacre and the public reaction to it.

My Lai and its legacy.

The Kent State University protest, 1970


May 4th 1970, Kent State University

Wikipedia. Background information about the Kent State University protest and shootings.

History Learning Site. Excellent narrative outlining the events of May 4th 1970.

Kent State 1970. Description of events in the build up to the shootings and of events on the 4th of May.


The Fulbright Hearings, 1971.

Wikipedia article about the Fulbright hearings.

Fulbright speaking about Vietnam.

The Fulbright Collection. Papers and speeches.

Key issue: Why were the US actions to end the Vietnam War unsuccessful?


The Tet Offensive and its impact on the war, 1968

Vets with a mission. Detailed account of the Tet Offensive.

US History. Overview of the Tet Offensive.

The Turning Point of the Vietnam War.


Attacks on Laos and Cambodia, 1970

Operation Menu. Narrative from wikipedia.

Spartacus Encyclopedia. US activity in Laos and Cambodia.

Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia: A brief history of 'Enlarging the problem'

US bombing of the North and attacks on Laos and Cambodia, 1970 –1972

Documentary evidence: Agent Orange in Laos and Cambodia.

President Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and the Bombing of Cambodia

Air campaigns in Cambodia and Laos.

The Paris Peace Conference and US withdrawal

Paris Peace Accords. From wikipedia.

Vietnam Peace Conference.

Moratorium to end the Vietnam War.

Nixon announces the end of the Vietnam War.

How to understand the end of the Vietnam war


The fall of Saigon, 1975.

The Fall of Saigon.

ITN Footage of the Fall of Saigon

Stories about the Fall of Saigon 




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