A Brief History of the Vietnam War: Combatants, Casualties and Aftermath

The Vietnam War was a 19-year conflict involving Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Other allies later joined the war. It was fought from early November 1955 to the end of April 1975. As the second of the Indochina Wars, the Vietnam War was originally fought between North and South Vietnam. However, like World War I and II, the Vietnam War saw the intrusion of military alliances from the Soviet Union, China, US, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, and other communists and anti-communists nations.

To Vietnamese, the proper name for the Vietnam War is The Resistance War Against America (or the American War). The war coincided with civil wars in Cambodia and Laos. The three main warring countries became communist states after the war in 1975. The United States of America bowed its head in shame following the humiliating way it withdrew its troops from Vietnam.

Major Countries that were involved in the Vietnam War

Vietnam War

U.S. army in battle during the Vietnam War.

In the 19th century, Indochina was a colony of France. When Japanese forces invaded Vietnam during the Second World War, the Vietnamese armed forces (Viet Minh) had military support from the US, China, and the Soviet Union. After Japan suffered defeat in World War II, it withdrew its forces from Vietnam; some of its weapons were retrieved by the victors.

The Vietnamese army, led by political leader Ho Chi Minh, started insurgencies against French colonial rule. This developed into the First Indochina War (December 1946). By 1950, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States had found its way into the Indochina conflict.

In January of 1950, the Soviet Union and China acknowledged the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (Viet Minh) as the legal government of Vietnam. A month later, the US and Great Britain would go on to recognize the State of Vietnam (backed by France) as the legitimate government of Vietnam.

Human and Economic Costs of the Vietnam War

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, US policymakers were worried that the war in Indochina would lead to an expansion of communist states backed by the Soviet Union. Military experts from the PRC (People’s Republic of China) started to assist the Viet Minh in July of 1950. Military supplies were imported from China into Vietnam. This strengthened the Vietnamese army (Viet Minh). The United States of America responded by creating a Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG). The MAAG was tasked with shore up French aid to South Vietnamese soldiers. By 1954, The US had spent roughly $1 billion in supporting France. This represented about 80% of the cost of the Indochina war.

Between March and May of 1954, confrontation had reached meteoric proportions, resulting in the outbreak of the First Indochina War. It was a fierce battle between the French Unions and the Viet Minh communist revolutionaries; it became known as the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. During the battle, US warships sailed to the Gulf of Tonkin and conducted military operations (reconnaissance). The US and France held talks and discussed plans to use tactical nuclear weapons in the war. Fortunately, these were not executed. The French lost the battle and surrendered on 7th May 1954. Independence was granted to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

The 1954 Peace Treaty

Vietnam War

The Vietnam war had a devastating effect on lives and property.

In July 1954, a peace treaty signed at a conference in Geneva divided Vietnam into South and North. Ho Chi Minh controlled South Vietnam while Bao took charge of South Vietnam. In accordance with the treaty, elections were to be held in 1956. Unfortunately, a powerful anti-communist politician known as Ngo Dinh Diem overthrew Emperor Bao to become the president of South Vietnam. All that while, the Cold War had intensified. The US became tough on the Soviet Union and its allies. Then US president Dwight D. Eisenhower pledged support for Diem and South Vietnam. Diem’s government got American military equipment and tortured Viet Minh (Viet Cong) sympathizers in South Vietnam. Over 100,000 people were brutalized; many were killed.

In 1957, Viet Cong and other enemies of Diem’s repressive regime fought back. Government officials were subjected to reprisal attacks. Conditions grew worse by 1957. South Vietnam forces were engaged in a firefight with the Viet Cong and its supporters. In December of 1960, communist and non-communist opponents of Diem’s regime within South Vietnam joined hands and formed the National Liberation Front (NLF). Their goal was to dismantle Diem’s regime.

The US Presidents’ roles in the War

Former US president F. Kennedy sent a team to South Vietnam and asked for a report on conditions. It was 1961; the team’s report called for economic, technical and military aid from America. They intended to support Diem’s government to face the Viet Cong powers. Drawing inspiration from the Domino Theory which predicts that if a Southeast Asian nation adopts communism, many others would follow, F. Kennedy raised US aid in South Vietnam. American military bases in South Vietnam had increased to 9000 by the year 1962.

In November 1963, Diem was assassinated in a coup led by some of his own generals. Three weeks later, President F. Kennedy was also assassinated in Dallas, Texas. President F. Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson failed to properly contain the political instability in South Vietnam. He further increased US economic and military support in the south. In August of 1964, torpedo boats from North Vietnam attacked a US warship in the Gulf of Tonkin. In retaliation, the US carried out a series of bombing attacks on North Vietnam. America dispatched more troops to South Vietnam to join the war. Thailand, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand joined hands with the US.

The Aftermath of the Vietnam War

North Vietnam’s army was weakening but it later got support from the Soviet Union and China. The Viet Cong and DRV became strong again. American military casualties spiked to 15 000 by the year 1967. This sparked public outrage/protests by American citizens. In 1973, the US backed out from the war. About 2 million Vietnamese were killed, 3 million were wounded and refugee numbers jumped to 12 million. Even though Vietnam was destroyed, America had lost the war. About 58 000 Americans were killed or missing in action. The US had spent about $120 billion in the war from 1965 to 1973.