This topic guide will help you work with the topic of the Vietnam War. The guide is mainly intended for use in English class, but it may also be relevant for other school subjects such as History or Social Studies.
The guide is designed to give you a good overview of the Vietnam War, and especially the way the US was involved in it. You can also find specific suggestions for texts to use as reference points, as well as ideas for further thematic perspectives.
In the middle of the 19th century, Vietnam became a colony of France. France's colonial rule lasted until the Second World War, when an invasion of Japenese troops destabilized the region and eventually removed France from power in 1945. The communist movement Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, instead seized power in the country.
The French attempted to take back control from the Viet Minh in 1946, but when they realized that the idea of colonies was becoming more and more controversial in the modern world, they instead tried to support the former Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai. The following years saw many political and military conflicts, which culminated in an official partition of Vietnam in 1954. Ho Chi Minh's communist regime ruled the north, while an anti-communist regime with more western influence had control of the South, led by Bao Dai and Ngo Dinh Diem. Bao Dai was deposed the following year, however, so Diem quickly seized full control of the south.
Even during France's early attempts to regain control of Vietnam, the US had been heavily involved with economic support, as the American government regarded fighting the global advance of communism as a top political priority during the Cold War. After France gave up on Vietnam, the US stepped in and started to provide direct support for Diem's government in South Vietnam.
A planned referendum was meant to lead to the unification of the divided Vietnam, but it never took place. Instead a war between north and south began, which was further complicated by the Viet Cong rebel movement in South Vietnam, which also supported the communists of the north.
In the following years, the US gradually escalated their support of South Vietnam. President Kennedy sent a large number of military advisers and special troops to support the country. However, Diem was growing more and more unpopular among the population because of corruption and lack of understanding of his people's needs and desires - and in 1963 he was assassinated in connection with a coup which was directly supported by the US. In the years following this coup, the political rule of South Vietnam was extremely unstable, and the area saw many more military coups and much rotation of leaders as a result.
After a number of confrontations between American and North Vietnamese ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, US involvement in the war was further intensitifed through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This led to a series of intense bombardments of North Vietnam, as well as an even greater influx of US troops to the region.
The war did not go well for the US, however. Despite their technically superior military force, US troops were not used to fighting in jungle areas, and the guerrilla tactics of the Viet Cong made it difficult to achieve real progress. At the same time, media coverage of the war started to turn public opinion against the US - especially when it was revealed that US troops had committed massacres against Vietnamese civilians (such as in My Lai), or when photos showed screaming children who were fleeing from American napalm bombardments.
All these factors gradually made the US pull out of Vietnam again - this so-called 'Vietnamization' was led by President Nixon and eventually resulted in the last US troops leaving the country in 1973. Without American support, South Vietnam had no chance against North Vietnam, so the war ended quickly after this point. In 1975 northern forces occupied the southern capitol of Saigon, and Vietnam was soon unified to become a single, communist state.
The media coverage of the Vietnam War led to increased global awareness of the human consequences of war, which still plays a significant role in modern news media. The war also had a negative effect on the global reputation of the US, which can still be felt today. Locally, the influence of the war can especially be seen through the dramatic aftereffects of the herbicide Agent Orange, which the US sprayed across Vietnam's jungles and fields in enormous amounts, and which later turned out to be very harmful to human beings.