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The Vietnam War (1945–1975)

History SparkNotes

Study Questions & Essay Topics

The Aftermath of the War

Quiz

Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.

Study Questions

1.

How were the Vietnamese Communist forces so effective in the face of the far wealthier, technologically superior powers of France and the United States?

Vietnamese resistance to foreign rule was based on a centuries-long history of Vietnam fighting against imperial and colonial overlords. Raised on stories of generations of fighting against imperial China, Vietnamese Communists were willing to make tremendous sacrifices and fight patiently for decades. Moreover, the Vietnamese Communist forces had a particularly able body of leaders. In sharp contrast to the corrupt French- and U.S.-backed leadership in southern Vietnam, northern Vietnam’s leaders were sincere and passionate about their nationalism. Ho Chi Minh, who exemplified this skillful, unified leadership, had years of experience in the West and appropriated his learning to use against France and the United States.

Strategically, the decentralized command structure of the Vietnamese Communist forces and the agrarian nature of the North Vietnamese economy made it difficult for U.S. bombing campaigns to find targets that would disable Vietnam’s military effort. North Vietnam’s pre-industrial status negated the impact of military technology that the United States had developed for use against highly industrialized nations such as Germany in World War II. This strategic hurdle, combined with the fact that the Vietnamese Communists were willing to accept an enormous human cost to win the independence of their homeland, made the U.S. task difficult. Battling for vague Cold War principles and unwilling to make such sacrifices, the United States ultimately lacked the will to prevail in the war.

2.

How did the Tet Offensive affect American politics, society, and the course of the war in Vietnam?

Although the Tet Offensive was one of the greatest tactical victories for the U.S. forces against Viet Cong guerrillas, it was an enormous political loss for the United States during the war. Because the attack intensified the antiwar protest movement at home and discredited President Lyndon Johnson and U.S. military officials, the Tet Offensive represented a major turning point in the war against the United States.

During the Vietnamese New Year, Tet, in January 1968, thousands of Viet Cong insurgents launched the war’s largest coordinated attack yet, on nearly thirty U.S. military installations in South Vietnam, along with dozens of other South Vietnamese cities. Although U.S. forces were initially caught off guard, they defeated the guerrillas relatively quickly and decisively—a resounding defeat that permanently crippled Ho Chi Minh’s military forces.

Despite this victory, however, the offensive frightened the American public because it seemed to contradict President Johnson’s assurances that the United States was winning the war. U.S. public opinion worsened when General William Westmoreland requested 200,000 additional U.S. troops after the offensive, on top of the nearly 500,000 Americans already serving in Vietnam. Westmoreland’s request startled not only the American public but also congressmen, senators, foreign-policy makers, and even Johnson himself. Many U.S. government officials privately began to question whether Vietnam was actually “winnable” at all and, if so, whether the United States was using the right tactics. Former secretary of state Dean Acheson voiced his disproval, as did Johnson’s own secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, who resigned his position.

The American media compounded the situation, as the official government line that the United States was winning the war contrasted sharply with the shocking images Americans saw on their televisions during the evening news. Westmoreland’s request merely confirmed their suspicions that the government was not telling the truth. As a result, more and more Americans began to distrust the federal government and the military. This so-called “credibility gap” between what the government was saying and what was actually happening fueled antiwar activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The credibility gap crippled the Democratic Party and effectively ruined Johnson’s chances for reelection. Although technically a major military victory, the Tet Offensive was thus a major political defeat for Johnson and the U.S. military and a significant turning point in the war.

3.

Discuss the role the American media played in the Vietnam War.

During the Vietnam War, the American media did not act simply as a collaborator with the U.S. government as it had in many previous wars; conversely, it served as a powerful check on government power. This dynamic first emerged in January 1963, when journalists reported the defeat of the South Vietnamese army at the Battle of Ap Bac, contrasting sharply with official U.S. government and military reports that the battle had been a victory.

When this power of the media became apparent, some Vietnamese civilians were able to manipulate it, as in June 1963, when a Buddhist monk protesting the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government burned himself to death in full view of news photographers in the city of Hue. The pictures of the monk’s self-immolation appeared on front pages of newspapers across the world and alerted the American public to the corruption of the U.S.-supported Diem regime.

Media resistance to the U.S. government’s official statements only increased as the war progressed. The Tet Offensive in 1968, though a tactical victory for the United States, was perceived as a major defeat as the media recast the meaning of the battles. During the Tet offensive, prominent journalist Walter Cronkite editorialized during a nationally televised newscast that it did not look like America could win the war. In 1971, when the New York Times and other newspapers published excerpts of the top-secret Pentagon Papers, public distrust of the U.S. government deepened, causing a scandal in the Nixon administration. In the end, this public discontentment had concrete effects, as the antiwar movement became a prominent force and compelled Nixon to start withdrawing U.S. troops. In this sense, Vietnam was very much a “media war,” fought in newspapers and on television as much as in the jungles of Vietnam.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Did the United States win or lose the Vietnam War? Justify your answer.

2. How did U.S. objectives differ from the objectives of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists during the war?

3. Compare and contrast Johnson’s and Nixon’s respective Vietnam War strategies.

4. Discuss the impact of antiwar protest movements in the United States during the Vietnam War.

5. How did U.S. foreign policy evolve from the end of World War II in 1945 to the end of the Vietnam War in 1975?

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