American Civil War (1861-1865)
The American Civil War, also called War Between the States in U.S. history, a four-year war (1861–65) between the federal government of the United States and 11 Southern states that asserted their right to secede from the Union.
The secession of the Southern states (in chronological order, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina) in 1860–61 and the ensuing outbreak of armed hostilities were the culmination of decades of growing sectional friction over the related issues of slavery, trade and tariffs, and the doctrine of states’ rights. This friction arose out of fundamental differences between the economies of the Northern and Southern states. The North had a growing manufacturing sector and small farms using free labour, while the South’s economy was based on large farms (plantations) using slave labour. In the 1840s and ’50s the Northern states wanted to prohibit slavery in the Western territories that would eventually become new states. The Southern states opposed all efforts to block the expansion of slavery and feared that the North’s stance would eventually endanger existing slaveholdings in the South itself. By the 1850s, some Northerners had begun calling for the complete abolition of slavery, while several Southern states threatened to secede from the Union as a means to protect their right to keep slaves. When Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of the antislavery Republican Party, was elected president in late 1860, the Southern states carried out their threat and seceded.
Organized as the Confederate States of America, the Southern states, under President Jefferson Davis, counted on patriotic fervour, the strategic advantage of interior lines of communication, and the international importance of their chief cash crop, cotton, to win a short war of independence. The Northern states of the federal Union, under President Abraham Lincoln, commanded more than twice the population of the Confederacy and held even greater advantages in manufacturing and transportation capacity.
War began in Charleston, South Carolina, with the firing of Confederate artillery on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Both sides quickly began raising and organizing armies. On July 21 some 30,000 Union troopsmarching toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, were stopped at Bull Run (Manassas) and then driven back to Washington, D.C., by Confederates under General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and General P.G.T. Beauregard. The shock of defeat galvanized the Union, which called for 500,000 more recruits. General George B. McClellan was given the job of training the Union’s Army of the Potomac.
The first major campaign of the war began in February 1862, when the Union general Ulysses S. Grant captured the Confederate strongholds of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in western Tennessee; this action was followed by the Union John Pope’s capture of New Madrid, Missouri, a bloody but inconclusive battle at Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing), Tennessee, on April 6–7, and the occupation of Corinth and Memphis, Tennessee, in June. Also in April, the Union naval commodore David G. Farragut gained control of New Orleans. In the East, McClellan launched a long-awaited offensive with 100,000 men in another attempt to capture Richmond. Opposed by General Robert E. Lee and his able lieutenants Jackson and J.E. Johnston, McClellan moved cautiously and in the Seven Days’ Battles (June 25–July 1) was turned back, his Peninsular Campaign a failure. At the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 29–30), Lee drove another Union army, under Pope, out of Virginia and followed up by invading Maryland. McClellan was able to check Lee’s forces at Antietam (or Sharpsburg, September 17). Lee withdrew, regrouped, and dealt McClellan’s successor, A.E. Burnside, a heavy defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 13.
Burnside was in turn replaced as commander of the Army of the Potomac by General Joseph Hooker, who took the offensive in April 1863. He attempted to outflank Lee’s position at Chancellorsville, Virginia, but was completely outmaneuvered (May 1–5) and forced to retreat. Lee then undertook a second invasion of the North. He entered Pennsylvania, and a chance encounter of small units developed into a climactic battle at Gettysburg (July 1–3), where the new Union commander, General George G. Meade, commanded defensive positions. Lee’s forces were repulsed at the Battle of Gettysburg and fell back into Virginia. At nearly the same time, a turning point was reached in the West. After two months of masterly maneuvering, Grant captured Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4, 1863. Soon the Mississippi River was entirely under Union control, effectively cutting the Confederacy in two. In October, after a Union army under General W.S. Rosecrans had been defeated at Chickamauga Creek, Georgia (September 19–20), Grant was called to take command in that theatre. Ably assisted by General William Tecumseh Sherman and General George Thomas, Grant drove Confederate Braxton Bragg out of Chattanooga (November 23–25) and out of Tennessee; Sherman subsequently secured Knoxville.
In March 1864 Lincoln gave Grant supreme command of the Union armies. Grant took personal command of the Army of the Potomac in the east and soon formulated a strategy of attrition based upon the Union’s overwhelming superiority in numbers and supplies. He began to move in May, suffering extremely heavy casualties in the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor (see photograph), all in Virginia, and by mid-June he had Lee pinned down in fortifications before Petersburg, Virginia. For nearly 10 months the siege of Petersburg continued, while Grant slowly closed around Lee’s positions. Meanwhile, Sherman faced the only other Confederate force of consequence in Georgia. Sherman captured Atlanta early in September, and in November he set out on his 300-mile (480-km) march through Georgia, leaving a swath of devastation behind him. He reached Savannah on December 10 and soon captured that city.
By March 1865 General Robert E. Lee’s army was thinned by casualties and desertions and was desperately short of supplies. General Ulysses S. Grant began his final advance on April 1 at Five Forks, captured Richmond on April 3, and accepted Lee’s surrender at nearby Appomattox Court House on April 9. General William Tecumseh Sherman had moved north into North Carolina, and on April 26 he received the surrender of Lieutenant J.E. Johnston. The war was over.
Naval operations in the Civil War were secondary to the war on land, but there were nonetheless some celebrated exploits. David Farragut was justly hailed for his actions at New Orleans and at Mobile Bay (August 5, 1864), and the battle of the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack (March 9, 1862) is often held to have opened the modern era of naval warfare. For the most part, however, the naval war was one of blockade as the Union attempted, largely successfully, to stop the Confederacy’s commerce with Europe.
The North’s victory in the American Civil War resulted in the preservation of the Union, the abolition of slavery, and the granting of citizenship to the freed slaves. The war also marked the new economic and political ascendancy of the rapidly industrializing, increasingly urbanized states of the North.
World War I (1914-1918)
World War I, also called First World War, or Great Waran international conflict that in 1914–18 embroiled most of the nations of Europe along with Russia, the United States, the Middle East, and other regions. The war pitted the Central Powers—mainly Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey—against the Allies—mainly France, United Kingdom of Great Britain (and its Dominions), Russia, Italy, Japan, and, from 1917, the United States. It ended with the defeat of the Central Powers.
By 1910 the major nations of Europe had aligned themselves into two potentially hostile alliances, with Germany and Austria in one and France, Great Britain, and Russia in the other. When a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, a chain of threats, ultimatums, and mobilizations was set in motion that resulted in a general war between these two alliances by mid-August.
Germany had long been prepared to fight a land war on two fronts—i.e., against France on the west and against Russia on the east. In the west its armies outflanked France’s main defensive forces and swept westward through Belgium, thereby bringing Great Britain into the war by treaty obligation. The German armies then turned south toward Paris. The French, reinforced by a British Expeditionary Force, managed to stabilize their defensive lines by November along the Aisne River, thereby saving Paris, but this meant that the rest of the war in that theatre was fought on French territory. Because of the tremendous firepower of modern artillery and machine guns, the war quickly evolved into one of attrition fought from lines of trenches. Frontal infantry assaults typically gained ground only by yards, and these attacks, whether successful or not, were enormously costly in human life. A deadlock soon ensued on the Western Front that could not be broken even by the enormous battles of the Somme and Verdun (both 1916) or by the massive German offensives of early 1918.
In the east an early Russian offensive in 1914 drove deep into East Prussia, German Poland, and Galicia, but the Russians were stopped by German and Austrian forces by the end of the year, and, in a startling German offensive begun in May 1915, they were thrown back into their own territory. Though it mounted several more offensives and suffered enormous casualties, the Russian army proved unable either to break through the German defensive lines or to take any German territory.
Other fronts in the war were to a greater or lesser extent peripheral to the main theatres but were nonetheless bloody. They included Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, where Britain unsuccessfully attempted to invade Turkey proper; the Caucasus and Persia, where Russia and Turkey fought; Mesopotamia and Egypt, where British forces (and, in Egypt, the Arabs organized by T.E. Lawrence) fought the Turks; and the Isonzo valley northwest of Trieste, where Italian and Austrian troops fought a long series of costly battles.
At sea only Germany and Great Britain had substantial fleets. Britain attempted, with considerable success, to blockade Germany and cut off its maritime access to food and raw materials from overseas. In response Germany turned to one of its newest weapons, the submarine, to interrupt the maritime supply lines of the British Isles. Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, however, which led to the sinking of much neutral shipping, ultimately persuaded the United States to enter the war against Germany in 1917. The major naval engagement of the war—indeed, one of the largest naval battles in history—was the inconclusive Battle of Jutland fought between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet in May 1916.
Russia’s poor performance in the war and its grievous losses inspired widespread domestic discontent that led to the overthrow of the Russian monarchy in early 1917 and to the Bolshevik Revolution in November of that year. At the Bolshevik leader Lenin’s order, Russia unilaterally ceased hostilities on November 26 and a month later signed a formal armistice with Germany, thus withdrawing from participation in the war. The release of German forces in the east for service on the deadlocked Western Front, however, was offset by the arrival of U.S. troops in France. Used tentatively at first, the rapidly reinforced American forces—1,200,000 by September 1918—soon proved their worth.
By autumn 1918 the position of the Central Powers had deteriorated rapidly. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, shaken by military defeats and by nationalist uprisings encouraged by the Russian Revolution, virtually disintegrated during October. Germany’s great offensives on the Western Front during April-July failed, and the Allied forces then began a steady advance that recovered almost all of German-occupied France and part of Belgium by October 1918. German military and civilian morale thereupon collapsed, and amid widespread political unrest the German kaiser William II abdicated on November 9. Two days later an Armistice was signed between Germany and the Allies at Rethondes, Fr., thus ending World War I.
World War II (1939-1945)
World War II, also called Second World Wara conflict that involved virtually every part of the world during the years 1939–45. The principal belligerents were the Axis powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan—and the Allies—France, United Kingdom of Great Britain (and its Dominions), the United States, the Soviet Union, and, to a lesser extent, China. The war was in many respects a continuation, after an uneasy 20-year hiatus, of the disputes left unsettled by World War I.
German bitterness over their defeat in World War I and the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, together with the social unrest and political instability that beset the Weimar Republic, resulted in the coming to power of Adolf Hitler, leader of the intensely nationalistic and anti-Semitic National Socialist (Nazi) Party. Given dictatorial powers in 1933, Hitler began the secret rearmament of Germany almost immediately. Playing on the reluctance of other European powers to actively oppose him, he ordered the military occupation of the Rhineland, in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles, in March 1936. Later that year Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, who had already embarked on aggression in Ethiopia, declared a Rome-Berlin “axis”; the next year Italy joined the 1936 Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan. Germany and Italy both intervened, in the name of anticommunism, in the Spanish Civil War from 1936.
In March 1938 Hitler sent German troops to occupy Austria, which was promptly incorporated into Germany. By a combination of external and internal pressures he succeeded in annexing or neutralizing all of what had been Czechoslovakia by March 1939. In April 1939 Italy annexed Albania. On September 1, secure behind the new German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact that had stunned the world in August, Hitler began an invasion of Poland. Great Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. By the end of 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union had divided Poland between themselves, and the Soviets had occupied Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and had attacked Finland, which they finally defeated in March 1940. For some months Germany’s main activities were at sea, including an effective submarine campaign against merchant shipping bound for Britain. In April 1940 Germany occupied several Norwegian ports and all of Denmark. On May 10 the major German offensive in the west began with a lightning sweep through The Netherlands and Belgium into France; by June 22 three-fifths of France, including Paris, was occupied, and the rest had become a neutral state with its government at Vichy. During August-September the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) launched massive bombing raids on Great Britain in an attempt to soften it up for a cross-Channel invasion. The Battle of Britain was won by the Royal Air Force, however, and Hitler postponed the invasion indefinitely.
Following Italy’s abortive invasion of Greece in November 1940, Hitler drew Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia into the Axis; Bulgaria joined in March 1941. In April Germany attacked Yugoslavia and Greece, both of which were overrun by the end of the month. In June Hitler abandoned the Nonaggression Pact of 1939 and launched a massive surprise invasion of the Soviet Union. German armoured units drove deep into Soviet territory and at one point reached the outskirts of Moscow before Soviet counterattacks and winter weather slowed the offensive to a halt.
Japan, the other Axis member, had meanwhile been tiring of its long, unproductive war in China and decided to take advantage of the situation in Europe to seize European colonial holdings in the Far East. To cripple what it foresaw would be its main opponent in a Pacific war of aggrandizement, Japan attacked United States installations at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the Philippines on Dec. 7–8, 1941. Within days the United States was at war with all the Axis powers. Japan swiftly invaded and occupied the Philippines, most of Southeast Asia and Burma (Myanmar), the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia), and many Pacific Ocean islands. Despite the enormous initial advantage gained by its sudden offensives, Japan lost the crucial sea battle of Midway in June 1942. The American strategy in the Pacific was to use naval and amphibious forces to advance up the chains of islands toward Japan while smaller land forces cooperated with Chinese and British efforts on the Asian mainland.
In North Africa the British, who in 1940–41 had defeated much larger Italian forces, were locked in a seesaw battle with the German Afrika Korps. In November 1942 the first Allied offensive began with U.S. and British landings in North Africa. German forces were gradually squeezed into Tunisia and were finally eliminated in May 1943. In July Allied troops from North Africa landed in Sicily and thence invaded Italy in September. The fascist government was overthrown, and in October, Italy joined the Allies; fighting against German troops continued in Italy for the rest of the war.
After a bitterly opposed and finally unsuccessful attack on Stalingrad (August 1942–February 1943), German forces in the Soviet Union lost momentum, and, as the Red Army continued to draw on its huge manpower reserves, it began during 1943 to push the Germans back from the western portions of the Soviet Union. Germany was meanwhile preparing for an expected Allied invasion of western Europe. The invasion came on June 6, 1944—D-Day—on the beaches of Normandy in northern France, where 156,000 British, Canadian, and U.S. troops under the command of the U.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower were landed. With command of the air the Allies quickly consolidated their foothold and began the advance eastward that ended in the occupation of the German homeland in March–April 1945. Meanwhile, the Soviet forces in 1944 had pushed the Germans completely out of the Soviet Union and had advanced into Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania. In early 1945 they occupied the eastern one-third of Germany. At the climax of the German collapse, with Berlin encircled by Soviet troops, Hitler committed suicide on April 30; on May 8 the surrender of all German forces was signed.
In the Pacific the “island-hopping” strategy of the U.S. Douglas MacArthur led to the Allied invasion of the Philippines by October 1944. The naval battle in Leyte Gulf that followed all but eliminated the Japanese navy. The capture, after bitter fighting, of the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in March and June of 1945 opened the way for both the heavy strategic bombing of Japan itself and a possible invasion. The war in the Pacific came to a sudden and dramatic close after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945; Japan’s formal surrender was signed on September 2.
Korean War (1950-1953)
The Korean conflict that began in June 1950 between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea), which resulted in an estimated 4,000,000 casualties, including civilians. The United Nations, with the United States as the principal participant, joined the war on the side of the South Koreans, and the People’s Republic of China eventually came to North Korea’s aid. After exceptional vicissitudes, the war was ended inconclusively in July 1953; it established a precedent for United States intervention to contain communist expansion.
At the end of World War II, the Allies agreed that Soviet forces would accept the surrender of Japanese troops in Korea north of the 38th degree of latitude, while American troops would accept the Japanese surrender south of that line. In 1947, after the failure of negotiations to achieve the unification of the two separate Korean states that had thus been created, the United States turned the problem over to the United Nations. The Soviet Union refused to cooperate with UN plans to hold general elections in the two Koreas, and, as a result, a communist state was permanently established under Soviet auspices in the north and a pro-Western state was set up in the south. By 1949 both the United States and the Soviet Union had withdrawn the majority of their troops from the Korean Peninsula.
On June 25, 1950, the North Koreans, with the tacit approval of the Soviet Union, unleashed a carefully planned attack southward across the 38th parallel. The United Nations Security Council met in emergency session and passed a resolution calling for the assistance of all UN members in halting the North Korean invasion. (The Soviet delegate, who was absent from the Security Council in protest against the UN’s failure to admit the People’s Republic of China, was not present to veto the council’s decision.) On June 27, U.S. President Harry S. Truman, without asking Congress to declare war, ordered United States forces to come to the assistance of South Korea as part of the UN “police action.”
Meanwhile, the South Korean army was overwhelmed by the North Korean forces, and the four ill-equipped American divisions that had been rushed into the battle were driven all the way southward across the Korean Peninsula to a small area covering the approaches to Pusan, on the peninsula’s southeastern tip. The American forces there were heavily reinforced, however. On September 15, troops commanded by General Douglas MacArthur made a daring amphibious landing at Inch’on (see photograph), about 100 miles (160 km) below the 38th parallel and on a line with Seoul, the South Korean capital. This brilliant landing far north of the main battlefront succeeded in cutting the North Korean forces’ lines; the North Korean army was then totally shattered by the convergence of Allied forces from north and south, and more than 125,000 prisoners were captured by the Allies.
As the Allied forces now advanced northward back to the 38th parallel, the Chinese warned that the presence of UN forces in North Korea would be unacceptable to the security of the Chinese People’s Republic and would force the Chinese to intervene in the war. UN forces, however, ignored the warnings and advanced into North Korea with the expressed intention of unifying the country. By mid-November the Allied forces were nearing the Yalu River, which marked the border between North Korea and Manchuria, the northeast part of China. The Chinese considered the approach of UN forces to the Yalu to be an unacceptable threat to Manchuria. On November 24 MacArthur announced his “Home by Christmas” offensive, in which his forces would boldly advance right up to the Yalu. The next day approximately 180,000 Chinese “volunteers” entered the war, and by December 15, after bitter winter fighting and a harrowing retreat, the Allied troops had been driven southward back to the 38th parallel. On December 31, 1950, the communists began their second invasion of South Korea with about 500,000 troops, but their attack soon faltered in the face of incessant Allied aerial bombing campaigns, and the front lines eventually stabilized along the 38th parallel.
Meanwhile, MacArthur was demanding the authority to blockade China’s coastline and bomb its Manchurian bases. Truman refused, feeling that such a course would bring the Soviet Union into the war and thus lead to a global conflict. In response, MacArthur appealed over Truman’s head directly to the American public in an effort to enlist support for his war aims. On April 11, 1951, President Truman relieved MacArthur as UN commander and as commander of U.S. forces in the Far East and replaced him with General Matthew B. Ridgway. On July 10, 1951, truce talks began while the North Koreans and Chinese vainly strove for further success on the battlefield. The negotiations dragged on for months, but the situation changed after the U.S. presidential elections in the fall of 1952 and the victory of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had criticized the unpopular war and announced his intention to visit Korea if elected. Eisenhower secretly informed the North Koreans and Chinese that he was prepared to use nuclear weapons and would also carry the war to China if a peace agreement was not reached. After a brief renewal of hostilities in June 1953, an armistice was concluded on July 27, and the front line was accepted as the de facto boundary between North and South Korea. The exchange and repatriation of prisoners soon followed.
The Korean War resulted in the deaths of about 1,300,000 South Koreans, many of whom were civilians, 1,000,000 Chinese, 500,000 North Koreans, and about 37,000 Americans (the original figure of more than 54,000 was revised in 2000 after it was discovered that a clerk had incorrectly included noncombatant military deaths worldwide), with much smaller numbers of British, Australian, and Turkish casualties on the Allied side. Several million Koreans temporarily became refugees, and much of South Korea’s industrial plant was damaged, while North Korea was utterly devastated by American bombing campaigns.
Vietnam War (1955-1975)
The Vietnam War (1955–75), was a protracted and unsuccessful effort by South Vietnam and the United States to prevent the communists of North Vietnam from uniting South Vietnam with North Vietnam under their leadership.
The League for the Independence of Vietnam, generally known as the Viet Minh, was organized in 1941 as a nationalistic party seeking Vietnamese independence from France. It became openly communist only in the mid-1950s. On Sept. 2, 1945, less than a month after the Japanese surrendered in World War II, Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Viet Minh, formally declared Vietnam’s independence. The Viet Minh had a strong base of popular support in northern Vietnam.
The French wanted to reassert control in Indochina, however, and would recognize Vietnam only as a free state within the French Union. Fighting between the French and the Viet Minh broke out in 1946 and continued until 1954, when the French were badly defeated in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. An international conference in Geneva in 1954 negotiated a cease-fire. To separate the warring forces, the conferees decided that the French and the Vietnamese fighting under French command would move south of the 17th parallel and the Viet Minh would go north of the 17th parallel, which was established as a military demarcation line surrounded by a demilitarized zone (DMZ). Thousands of people accordingly moved north or south away from their homes, and the French began their final departure from Vietnam. The agreement left the communist-led Viet Minh in control of the northern half of Vietnam, which came to be known as North Vietnam, while the noncommunist southern half became South Vietnam. Ngo Dinh Diem became South Vietnam’s prime minister during the armistice negotiations.
The Geneva Accords (q.v.) stipulated that free elections be held throughout Vietnam in 1956 under the supervision of an International Control Committee with the aim of reunifying North and South Vietnam under a single popularly elected government. North Vietnam expected to win this election thanks to the broad political organization that it had built up in both parts of Vietnam. But Diem, who had solidified his control over South Vietnam, refused in 1956 to hold the scheduled elections. The United States supported his position. In response, the North Vietnamese decided to unify South with North Vietnam through military force rather than by political means.
U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, fearing the spread of communism in Asia, persuaded the U.S. government to provide economic and military assistance to the Diem regime, which became increasingly unpopular with the people of South Vietnam. Diem replaced the traditionally elected village councils with Saigon-appointed administrators. He also aroused the ire of the Buddhists by selecting his fellow Roman Catholics (most of whom had moved to South Vietnam from the North) for top government positions.
Guerrilla warfare spread as Viet Minh soldiers who were trained and armed in the North—the Viet Cong—returned to their homes in the South to assassinate, ambush, sabotage, and proselytize. The Diem government asked for and received more American military advisers and matériel to build up the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the police force, but it could not halt the growing presence of the South Vietnamese communist forces, or Viet Cong. U.S. President John F. Kennedy sent more noncombat military personnel after the North Vietnamese unified the South Vietnamese communist insurgents in an organization called the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (NLF) in December 1960. By the end of 1962 the number of U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam had increased from 900 (in 1960) to 11,000, and Kennedy authorized them to fight if they were fired upon.
Popular dissatisfaction with Diem continued to grow, even within his army, and Diem was assassinated during a military coup on Nov. 1, 1963. The U.S. government had despaired of him and knew about the coup beforehand. A series of unstable administrations followed in quick succession after Diem’s death, and the Viet Cong increased their activities while the South Vietnamese were thus politically preoccupied.
On Aug. 2, 1964, North Vietnamese patrol boats fired on the U.S. destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, and, after President Lyndon B. Johnson asserted that there had been a second attack on August 4—a claim later shown to be false—the U.S. Congress almost unanimously endorsed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the president to take “all necessary measures to repel attacks . . . and prevent further aggression.” The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in effect gave the president the formal authority for full-scale U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War. Johnson retaliated for the attack by ordering U.S. naval planes to bomb North Vietnam.
After 1965 U.S. involvement in the war escalated rapidly in response both to the growing strength of the Viet Cong (who had 35,000 troops in South Vietnam by 1964) and to the incapacity of the ARVN to suppress the Viet Cong on its own, even with a total force of 400,000 men. The United States became more involved in the war not only to maintain the independence of South Vietnam but also to retain the United States’ credibility with other allied nations who depended on its help to resist communist aggression or subversion.
On the night of Feb. 7, 1965, the Viet Cong attacked the U.S. base at Pleiku, killing 8 soldiers and wounding 126 more. Johnson in response ordered another reprisal bombing of North Vietnam. Three days later the Viet Cong raided another U.S. military installation at Qui Nhon, and Johnson ordered more aerial attacks against Hanoi. On March 6, two battalions of Marines landed on the beaches near Da Nang to relieve that beleaguered city. By June 50,000 U.S. troops had arrived to fight with the ARVN. Small contingents of the North Vietnamese army began fighting with the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, which they reached via the Ho Chi Minh Trail (q.v.) west of the Cambodian border.
The government in Saigon was now headed by Air Vice-Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, but he was unable to check the rapidly deteriorating military situation. NLF forces were gaining control of more and more areas of the countryside, and a communist victory seemed imminent. President Johnson’s response was to pledge the United States to defend South Vietnam and to send more troops. By the end of 1965, 180,000 Americans were serving in South Vietnam under the command of General William C. Westmoreland.
After mid-1966 the United States and the ARVN initiated a series of new tactics in their intensifying counterinsurgency effort, but their efforts to drive the Viet Cong from the countryside and separate them from their civilian supporters were only partly successful. The U.S. troops depended heavily on superior firepower and on helicopters for rapid deployment into targeted rural areas. The Viet Cong depended on stealth, concealment, and surprise attacks and ambushes.
U.S. troop strength in South Vietnam rose to 389,000 men in 1967, but, despite their sophisticated weapons, the Americans could not eradicate the skillful and determined insurgents. More North Vietnamese troops arrived to bolster the NLF forces in the South. A presidential election, in which all candidates who favoured negotiating with the NLF were banned, was held in South Vietnam in September, and General Nguyen Van Thieu became president, with Ky as vice president.
On Jan. 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched a massive surprise offensive during the Tet (lunar new year) Vietnamese festival. They attacked 36 major South Vietnamese cities and towns. The fighting at this time was especially fierce in Saigon and in the city of Hue, which the NLF held for several weeks. The NLF suffered heavy losses (33,000 killed) in the Tet Offensive, and the ranks of the Viet Cong were so decimated by the fighting that, from 1968 on, the majority of the insurgents in South Vietnam were actually North Vietnamese soldiers who had infiltrated into the South. Although the general uprising that the NLF had expected in support had not materialized, the offensive had an important strategic effect, because it convinced a number of Americans that, contrary to their government’s claims, the insurgency in South Vietnam could not be crushed and the war would continue for years to come.
In the United States, sentiment against U.S. participation in the war mounted steadily from 1967 on and expressed itself in peace marches, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience. Growing numbers of politicians and ordinary citizens began to question whether the U.S. war effort could succeed and even whether it was morally justifiable in a conflict that some interpreted as a Vietnamese civil war.
General Westmoreland requested more troops in order to widen the war after the Tet Offensive, but the shifting balance of American public opinion now favoured “de-escalation” of the conflict. On March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced in a television address that bombing north of the 20th parallel would be stopped and that he would not seek reelection to the presidency in the fall. Hanoi responded to the decreased bombing by de-escalating its insurgency efforts, and in October Johnson ordered a total bombing halt. During the interim the United States and Hanoi had agreed to begin preliminary peace talks in Paris, and General Creighton Abrams became the new commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam.
During 1969, action in South Vietnam tended to be scattered and limited, and the infiltration of North Vietnamese decreased markedly until late fall. In June U.S. President Richard M. Nixon and President Thieu announced the first withdrawal of 25,000 U.S. troops from South Vietnam. At that time there were more than 540,000 U.S. military personnel in Vietnam. The United States instituted a program of “Vietnamization,” whereby the South Vietnamese would gradually assume all military responsibilities for their defense while being copiously supplied with U.S. arms, equipment, air support, and economic aid. U.S. commanders in the field were instructed to keep casualties to “an absolute minimum,” and losses decreased appreciably. In Paris the peace talks dragged on, but South Vietnam did eventually agree to negotiate directly with the NLF and the North Vietnamese.
The war in Southeast Asia expanded during the spring of 1970 when U.S. and ARVN troops invaded border sectors of Cambodia in order to destroy North Vietnamese sanctuaries and staging areas. U.S. planes bombed northern Laos, where sizable North Vietnamese forces were fighting with the pro-communist Pathet Lao (“Lao Country”) against the U.S.-supported Vientiane government troops. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was the constant target of B-52 bombers. The expansion of the fighting into Cambodia sparked a new wave of antiwar demonstrations and protests in the United States. By late 1970 the number of U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam had been reduced to 335,000.
The gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam proceeded as announced, but the peace talks remained stalemated. By the end of 1971 the South Vietnamese had accepted responsibility for all fighting on the ground, although they still depended on U.S. air support. The number of U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam had dropped to 160,000.
In March 1972 the North Vietnamese invaded the DMZ and captured Quang Tri province. President Nixon responded by ordering the mining of Haiphong and other North Vietnamese ports and an intense bombing of the North. Peace talks resumed in July, but the talks broke down in mid-December with each side accusing the other of bargaining in bad faith. Hanoi and other North Vietnamese cities were then subjected to 11 days of intensive U.S. bombing.
The talks started again in Paris and resulted on Jan. 27, 1973, in an agreement between the South Vietnamese communist forces, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the United States. A cease-fire would go into effect the following morning throughout North and South Vietnam, all U.S. forces would be withdrawn and all its bases dismantled, all prisoners of war would be released, an international force would keep the peace, the South Vietnamese would have the right to determine their own future, and North Vietnamese troops could remain in the South but would not be reinforced. The 17th parallel would remain the dividing line until the country could be reunited by “peaceful means.” This pact was augmented by a second 14-point accord signed in June. In August the U.S. Congress proscribed any further U.S. military activity in Indochina. By the end of 1973 there were few U.S. military personnel left in South Vietnam.
But the fighting continued in spite of the cease-fire agreements, and North and South Vietnam each denounced the other for numerous violations of the truce. Casualties, both military and civilian, were as high as they had ever been.
The year 1974 was characterized by a series of small offensives as each side sought to seize land and people from the other. The North Vietnamese began preparing for a major offensive to be launched in either 1975 or 1976, while the South Vietnamese tried to hold all of the areas under their control, although they lacked the strength to do so. South Vietnam’s difficulties were compounded when the United States drastically cut its military aid in August 1974. The morale and combat effectiveness of the ARVN plummeted as a result.
In December 1974 the North Vietnamese attacked Phuoc Binh, a provincial capital about 60 miles (100 km) north of Saigon. Their capture of this city in early January 1975 convinced the North Vietnamese that a full-scale invasion of the South was now practicable. Accordingly, in early March, North Vietnamese forces began a large-scale offensive in the central highlands. When President Thieu ordered a withdrawal of all ARVN forces not only from the central highlands but from the northernmost two provinces of the country as well, general panic ensued, and the South Vietnamese military machine began to come apart. The withdrawals rapidly became routs as large ARVN units disintegrated into columns of refugees. One by one the coastal cities were abandoned, and by early April the ARVN had abandoned the northern half of their country to the North Vietnamese forces. The troops of the ARVN began to melt away, and the remaining Americans escaped by air- and sealifts with Vietnamese friends and coworkers. On April 21, President Thieu resigned and flew to Taiwan. On April 30 what remained of the South Vietnamese government surrendered unconditionally, and North Vietnamese tank columns occupied Saigon without a struggle. A military government was instituted, and on July 2, 1976, the country was officially united as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam with its capital in Hanoi. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
The effects of the long conflict were harsh for all involved. More than 47,000 Americans were killed in action, nearly 11,000 died of other causes, and more than 303,000 were wounded in the war. Casualty figures for the Vietnamese are far less certain. Estimates of the ARVN’s casualties range from 185,000 to 225,000 killed and 500,000 to 570,000 wounded. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong suffered about 900,000 troops killed and an unknown, but huge, number of wounded. In addition, more than 1,000,000 North and South Vietnamese civilians were killed during the war. Parts of the countryside were scarred by bombs and defoliation, and some cities and towns were heavily damaged. By the war’s end, in 1975, much of the population of South Vietnam had become refugees seeking an escape from the fighting. Agriculture, business, and industry had been disrupted. In the United States, President Johnson’s economic program for a “Great Society” had been largely halted by the economic and military demands of an unpopular war. The cost of the war has been estimated to have totaled about $200 billion. With the communist victory in South Vietnam and communist takeovers in neighbouring Cambodia and Laos, the new Vietnam emerged as an important Southeast Asian power.