The Vietnam War was one of the bloodiest wars in the late 20th century. At least 2 million Vietnamese civilians, more than a million North Vietnamese troops, and innumerable South Vietnamese and US troops died on battlefields. The United States spent more than $120 billion on the war in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973; this huge spending contributed to widespread inflation, exacerbated by a worldwide oil crisis in 1973 and skyrocketing fuel prices. These are just the beginning of some of the troubling but fascinating Vietnam War facts!
The psychological consequences were even more profound. The war had shattered the American illusion of invincibility and bitterly divided the nation. Many returning veterans faced hostility from war critics who called them murderers for having to kill innocent civilians.
To make it worse, other groups saw them as a disgrace to the country, having lost the war. However, a particular group took pity on those who suffered physical injuries. These injuries were from exposure to the toxin Agent Orange poured on Vietnam’s thick forests by United States aircraft.
In many ways, the Vietnam War had a profound effect on American culture at the time, effects that continue to linger to this day. Not everything is at lost, though. The country is keen on honoring those who served the country ever since the war’s end. In fact, Memorial Day was established to forever immortalize the sacrifice of those who fought for liberty. Learn more with these 40 Vietnam War facts.
The roots of the Vietnam War go back to WWII.
The entire Vietnam War could’ve started when the Japanese occupied the French Indochina during WWII where they found themselves opposed by the communist-led Viet Minh.
At the time, they received support from the Allies, in particular, the USA, the Soviet Union, and China. After WWII ended, the Viet Minh kept a large number of weapons that the Japanese left behind. They also refused to accept renewed French rule and fought a war against the French with continued Soviet and Chinese backing. This eventually led to Vietnam’s division into North and South Vietnam in 1950, with the Soviets and the Chinese backing the north. In the south, the French kept a presence, backed by the other Allies, and stayed until 1954.
The Domino Theory underlined American policy in SoutheastAsia over Vietnam’s future.
US President Dwight D. Eisenhower first put it forward in 1954, based on observations of how communism had steadily grown in Asia over the past years. According to the theory, the communist victory in China in 1949 had started a chain reaction, as seen in the Korean War and the country North Korea.
This led the president and the rest of his administration to fear that a communist victory in Vietnam would continue the domino-like effect. They theorized that after Vietnam, the rest of Indochina would fall, with Thailand following, then Malaysia, Indonesia, and other Asian countries. Thus, to keep communism from overwhelming Asia, the United States Of America had to put an end to the brewing communism.
South Vietnam suffered from internal problems.
First among those involved was South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Catholic Vietnamese groups formed a large part of his administration. This led to a big problem since most Vietnamese followed Buddhism.
Because of the President’s Catholic beliefs, many Vietnamese believed the South Vietnamese government existed under foreign influence.
Another problem in South Vietnam involved the government’s support for large landowners, at the expense of local peasants, who often became tenant workers for the landowners. This not only mirrored the flawed system practiced during the French colonial period but also fed into the first problem, as many landowners followed Catholicism.
Finally, President Diem also allowed corruption to flourish, rigging elections in his favor, at one point even winning 133% of the votes in Saigon. All these factors and more led to widespread opposition against the government in South Vietnam.
The United States Of America limited its involvement with Vietnam, at first.
President Eisenhower had considered sending troops to back the French and even the possibility of using nuclear weapons. However, he decided he would only do so if the British also joined in, which they refused to do.
This led the United States Of America to at first limit their involvement to Central Intelligence Agency or CIA operatives, who conducted psychological warfare in Vietnam. The United States Navy or USN also helped evacuate refugees running from the communist north. Small beginnings, as we see it here, at Vietnam War Facts.
The USA later backed a coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.
Diem’s unpopularity, plus his failed leadership in fighting Viet Cong guerillas, led US officials to consider replacing him with someone more competent. This had the CIA getting in touch with sympathetic South Vietnamese generals in 1963.
They made their move on November 2, with the military arresting and executing President Diem and his brother Nhu, as part of a larger plan to remove the Ngo family from power.
However, they did this without informing US President John F. Kennedy, resulting in a confused response from Washington D.C. It also eventually led to overconfidence from the USA’s civilian leaders, with a belief that the new, military-led regime in South Vietnam would shorten the war and end it in a South Vietnamese victory. Instead, it only allowed North Vietnam to point to South Vietnam as an American puppet, increasing local support for Vietnam’s unification under communism.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident led to a full United States intervention in Vietnam.
On August 2, 1964, the US spy ship USS Maddox sailed in the Gulf of Tonkin only to find itself attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. They fired back, damaging all three ships and forcing the attackers to retreat. On August 4, the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy detected more torpedo boats and opened fire. In hindsight, however, the second attack proved nothing more than panic, and that the USN may have detected and fired on simply flying fish. At the time, though, it led the US Congress to call on US President Lyndon B. Johnson to take the necessary measures to stop communist aggression. President Johnson responded by beginning a three-year bombing campaign over Vietnam, and later, across Indochina.
The American air campaign in Vietnam proved bigger than those in World War II.
This is a surprising example of Vietnam War facts. The USA dropped 7 million tons of bombs, missiles, and rockets over Indochina during the course of their intervention in the Vietnam War.
In contrast, the USA only dropped 2.1 million tons of explosives over Europe and Asia combined back in World War II. Ironically, of those 7 million explosives used in South Vietnam, they dropped 4 million tons in South Vietnamese territory, with the goal of destroying communist guerillas hiding in the countryside.
The US government tried to limit media coverage of the war.
It began with the Johnson Administration, as part of a policy of minimum candor. Under this, they pushed for the media to only air stories about success on the battlefield. This ultimately backfired as people had started doubting the streaks of news that only talk about victories.
The resulting credibility gap between the official government line, and how Allied troops went nowhere, and it only served to damage public trust in the United States government and their intervention in Vietnam.
North Vietnam won a massive victory during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
In January 1968, the combined forces of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong attacked 100 cities across South Vietnam. They targeted military bases and government buildings, including the United States embassy in Saigon. They caught Allied forces completely by surprise, leading historians to refer to the Tet Offensive as another Pearl Harbor.
Ultimately, Allied counterattacks managed to retake most cities within weeks, with the north’s own counterattacks, but finding only limited success. That said, while North Vietnam counted the Tet Offensive as a military defeat, it became a massive political success.
In the USA, it exposed how the US government had lied to its people about the fighting in Vietnam, leading to a massive drop in support for the war. It forced the USA to start negotiating with the north and to even temporarily suspend the bombing campaign.
American troops committed the My Lai Massacre in the same year.
On March 16, 1968, US troops massacred almost 400 civilians in the My Lai area as suspected Viet Cong sympathizers. The victims included children as young as 12, with many of the women also gang-raped by United States troops before getting killed. The US military covered up the massacre, only for journalists to break the news in November 1969.
This led to international condemnation of the USA and even a Congressional inquiry. Even then, however, the troops responsible for the massacre received only light sentences after a court-martial, at most three and a half years of house arrest.
The three American troops who refused to join the massacre, and even tried to stop it, also found themselves condemned by their government and fellow troops. It wasn’t until 1999 that they received official recognition of their actions in trying to stop the massacre.
America’s use of Agent Orange haunted the USA for decades after the war.
The US used Agent Orange as a defoliant, meant to poison large areas of forest to clear them away — denying guerillas places to hide. Agent Orange cleared over 31,000 square kilometers of forest during the war, but its use contaminated the environment.
The incident also had negative effects on civilians, as well as the USA’s own soldiers. Effects caused by the chemical drop included higher risks of developing cancer. Birth defects also rose after the immense exposure to Agent Orange and the consequences still ring to this day.
All these eventually led to lawsuits against the companies which produced Agent Orange. The United States government also introduced various laws to compensate soldiers exposed to the chemical.
In 2004, victims of Agent Orange sued the US government but lost the case in the court system. However, in 2011, the US and Vietnamese governments reached an agreement where the USA will fund decontamination operations in Vietnam.
Other Allied nations committed war crimes of their own.
South Korea participated in the Vietnam War, with the 2nd Marine Brigade becoming infamous in 1968. In February of that year, South Korean troops massacred between 70 to 80 civilians at Phong Ni and Phong Nat. Two years prior, South Korean troops massacred 430 civilians at Binh Hoa, and between 30 to 170 civilians at Binh Tai.
North Vietnam also had its share of war crimes.
Here’s another grim example of Vietnam War Facts. Viet Cong guerillas made widespread use of terror tactics. Statistics point out only 20% of the casualties they caused came from Allied forces or the South Vietnamese government.
Civilians made up the remaining 80%, with the Viet Cong killing up to 80,000 civilians during the war in mass killings. They also bombed refugee camps and used landmines on roads leading to and from rural communities.
Total statistics of civilian casualties they caused come to an estimated 300,000. The North Vietnamese military also committed war crimes, in particular, the use of torture on Allied POWs.
Failing public support for the war had a direct effect on the US military.
At home, the number of people joining the ROTC dropped from an estimated 200,000 in 1966 to just an estimated 30,000 in 1974. This had the effect of crippling the United States Of America’s ability to replace officers killed in the war.
In Vietnam, troops frequently refused to go on patrol, or simply outright refused to obey orders. And when they did go on patrol, they go a different route to limit their chances of engaging the enemy.
Drug use became rampant, with up to 30% of American troops smoking marijuana. Another 15% used heroin. American troops also began fragging their officers, especially those they saw as enthusiastic for battle. This usually involved throwing a grenade into the officer’s quarters with them inside and then blaming the attack on the enemy. Up to 900 fragging incidents took place alone between 1969 and 1971.
Many factors led to the loss of public support for US involvement in Vietnam.
Early on, the US government’s support for the corrupt Diem regime in South Vietnam led to many Americans seeing the official line of protecting democracy with skepticism. The widespread counterculture phenomenon of the 1960s also had strong anti-war themes. The US military at the time also depended on a draft to force people into the military and keep up their numbers. This meant that most soldiers didn’t actually want to fight the war. News of war crimes like the My Lai Massacre also damaged public support for the war. Public trust effectively collapsed after the Ohio National Guard killed four protesting students in 1970.
Allied forces steadily withdrew from Vietnam starting in 1970.
The beginning of the ’70s saw the United States Of America adopting the Vietnamization policy, with US soldiers only providing support for their ally. Instead, South Vietnamese troops would carry out all frontline combat duties. Also, even with the continued fighting, negotiations took place between all the nations involved. This drove not just the USA, but also other countries like Australia, to begin withdrawing their troops from Vietnam.
North Vietnam won battle after battle from 1973 onward.
North Vietnam took advantage of the suspended bombing campaign to modernize and expand its infrastructure. This allowed them to better support their campaigns beginning in 1973.
The dry season’s campaign succeeded in retaking lost territory from 1972. A limited campaign in 1974’s dry season provided North Vietnam with vital information to plan future campaigns.
In December of the same year, North Vietnam attacked and took Phuoc Long Province. South Vietnam requested US aid, but despite United States President Gerald Ford’s efforts, Congress refused to back a renewed intervention. This encouraged North Vietnam’s government, and over the course of March 1975, an all-out attack finally exposed Saigon to North Vietnam’s forces.
The USA desperately evacuated Saigon as communist forces approached the city.
South Vietnamese troops desperately bought time over the weeks of April as the Americans evacuated their troops and civilians from the city. This caused a panic in the city, with South Vietnamese civilians trying to escape as best they could.
Damage to the runways around the city forced the USA to use helicopters to evacuate. The USA also evacuated South Vietnamese groups publicly known to have strong ties with the regime. The helicopters took them to the carriers of the Seventh Fleet in the South China Sea. The number of evacuees proved so big, sailors often had to push planes off the carriers to make room for new arrivals.
South Vietnam’s government ran to Taiwan on April 25, and Saigon finally fell on April 30. The fleet stayed nearby for several more days to pick up refugees escaping on boats.
Communist victory in the Vietnam War caused the Vietnam Syndrome in the USA.
The Vietnam Syndrome is the public perception that the USA should not involve itself in foreign wars unless they directly threaten the country. In the 1980s, US President Ronald Reagan condemned the notion, reflected by the 72% poll opinion that the USA should never have fought in Vietnam in the first place. President Reagan argued that the USA fought for a noble cause to preserve South Vietnam’s democracy and that Vietnam Syndrome dishonors all Americans who fought in the war. Over the decades since, the Vietnam Syndrome slowly faded, as shown by enthusiastic support for the War on Terror after the 9/11 Attacks. However, even today, up to 66% of Americans still think the USA should never have involved itself in the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War caused a major change in the United States military.
The end of the Vietnam War also ended the draft, with the United States military becoming an all-volunteer force. This made sure that in the future, all soldiers would have a genuine commitment to fighting in their country’s wars abroad.