From 1964 to 1972, the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of the world made a maximum military effort, with everything short of atomic bombs, to defeat a nationalist revolutionary movement in a tiny, peasant country.
In March 1965 the first official ground troops arrive. Their initial success is heartening. The American public backs the deployment. Vietnam will prove to the world (and most importantly to China and Russia) that America is a superpower that cannot be bested (and that failures like the 'Bay of Pigs' were just one offs).
During 1965 over 200,000 American soldiers arrive in South Vietnam. Next year, there are 200,000 more. By 1968, there are half a million American troops in Vietnam. Air power, mainly directed towards the North, is equally overwhelming. By war's end, nearly one 500 pound bomb will have been dropped for every human being in Vietnam.
The size of the land and aerial campaigns mean civilian casualties and fatalities are inevitable. The sheer scale, however, is unprecedented. On 5 June 1965, the New York Times, writes: 'Three out of four patients seeking treatment in a Vietnamese hospital afterwards for burns from napalm, or jellied gasoline, were village women.'
Another press report on 6 September states:
'In another delta province there is a woman who has both arms burned off by napalm and her eyelids so badly burned that she cannot close them. When it is time for her to sleep her family puts a blanket over her head. The woman had two of her children killed in the air strike that maimed her.'
In November 1965, in front of the Pentagon in Washington, Norman Morrison, a 32 year old pacifist father of three, stands below the window of the Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, and covers himself in kerosene. He sets himself alight, and burns to death.
SEARCH AND DESTROY
President Johnson insists only 'military targets' are being bombed but indiscriminate or saturation bombing is common. On the ground, huge areas of South Vietnam are made 'free fire zones' meaning anyone remaining there, including children and the elderly, are classified as enemy. Villages suspected of harbouring Viet Cong are subject to 'search and destroy' missions. Men of military age are killed, their homes burned, and any remaining women and children are sent to refugee camps.
In the countryside, Vietnam's most important source of income, agriculture, is destroyed by deliberate bombing and spraying of defoliants. Agent Orange is the code name for the chemical used to destroy the jungle cover used by the Viet Cong: an unforeseen side effect will be the half million children born with birth defects. What is hoped is all that the bombing and spraying will force the rural population, usually Viet Cong sympathetic, into towns and cities, usually American controlled.
But the urban environment is equally devastated. War-time inflation eradicates the middle class as the main professions for locals become prostitution and crime. Drug addiction and venereal disease soon account for anywhere between a quarter and a half of American casualties.
The military mission is realised, too late, to be fundamentally flawed. The only way to eliminate the Viet Cong would be by cutting off and eliminating its supply lines and support in North Vietnam. But an invasion of North Vietnam could draw in Chinese and Russian support, as it had done in Korea.
But unlike Korea, this war is televised, and in colour. Many images will become iconic: a napalmed girl, a handcuffed man shot through the head, and ditches overflowing with bodies. American morale, in the military and back home, is dangerously low.
As early as June 1965, Richard Steinke, a West Point graduate in Vietnam, refuses to board an aircraft taking him to a Vietnamese village. He states: 'The Vietnamese war is not worth a single American life'. He's court-martialled and dismissed.
By 1968, the President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, is forced to cancel domestic engagements because of anti-war protesters. Whenever he does go out in public, there is a familiar chant: 'LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?'.
On 30 January 1968, the Viet Cong launches the Tet Offensive ('Tet' is the Buddhist New Year). It sweeps into the South, attacking 90 towns and occupies Saigon. Despite half a million U.S. troops and four years of Superpower fire power superiority, the Viet Cong have shown themselves capable of fighting not just a covert guerrilla war, but a full on frontal, and nearly successful military campaign. America wins the battle, but many now realise it can never win the war.
There is one effective, if unpalatable, counter insurgency operation in Vietnam. It is run by the CIA and codenamed 'Operation Phoenix'. Designed to identify and eliminate key Viet Cong players, it secretly, and without trial, executes at least twenty thousand suspects. Operating between 1968 and 1972, it is the closest America will come to actually defeating its enemy.
Did you know?
In early 1966, Assistant Sec of Defence, John McNaughton raised concerns that the intense bombing might alienate public opinion back home. His solution was to target the bombing on the enemy's dams and locks. His aim wasn't to drown enemy soldiers, but to flood their fields, ruin their harvests and cause mass starvation. America could then offer food aid in return for concessions. The American military were well aware of how resistant their new enemy might be. As General Maxwell Taylor reported in late 1964, 'The Viet-Cong units have the recuperative powers of the phoenix.'