The war in Vietnam is written large on the collective consciousness of the last few generations in the West, but Vietnam's scope of history spans thousands of years and has seen the rise and fall of many empires and conquerors. Not to minimize the devastating effects on both sides during what the Vietnamese call "The American War," but the conflict that ended now more than 30 years ago is far in the past for most Vietnamese, many of whom consider the time as just another in a very long series of incursions by a foreign foe. Search for volumes of Vietnamese history in your local library in the West, and you'll find literally hundreds of tomes about the war with the United States but little about the scope of Vietnam's 1,000 years of struggle with foreign powers. Vietnam's recent struggles are so close, so well documented, that our image of the country is intimately connected to footage of napalm-strafed hillocks, suicide attacks in Saigon, prolonged bombing campaigns, prisoners of war in the most desperate straits, the Vietnamese "boat people" of the 1970s and 1980s, or returning U.S. veterans with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), the likes of Robert De Niro in the Deer Hunter or Rambo. But talk to Vietnamese about the "American War," and you'll hear little recrimination. In fact, Vietnam's war record and persistence in the face of an economically superior foe is its greatest source of strength in a long history of prevailing against the odds -- or an "ongoing revolution," according to Marxism.
Vietnamese history can be broken into six distinct eras: 1) prehistory up until the first of the vaunted Hung Kings (like the British legends of Arthur); 2) the Chinese millennium from 189 B.C. to A.D. 939; 3) 1,000 years of Vietnamese autonomy and wars with the Khmer and the Cham to the south, as well as ongoing border scraps with China until the late 19th century; 4) colonization of Vietnam, again, under the French for 80 years; 5) war with the United States; and 6) years of hard-fought independence that began with Ho Chi Minh's Declaration of Independence but wasn't cemented until the fall of Saigon in 1975 and a unified Vietnam.
Early history is steeped in legend, and even the most reliable documents are but secondhand musings in the footnotes of ancient Chinese texts. The earliest kingdom, the Van Lang, was formed by the legendary King Huong Vuong, the Vietnamese equivalent of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. For some 2,000 years until the 3rd century B.C., the mythical Hung dynasty prospered in the Red River Delta concurrently with early Bronze Age cultures, and later the Dong Son Bronze Age culture, which dated from 850 to 300 B.C..
Legend has it that Hung kings had magical powers and their story is shrouded in myth and legend, but, particularly under the later Hung kings, there was relative stability and progress. Communal life centered on wet rice cultivation, a model that has stood through the ages, and early Vietnamese under the Hung also raised cattle; fostered the growth of weaving, pottery, and building skills; and developed intricate bronze-smith technology. The Hung dynasty crumbled under repeated incursions from China in the 3rd century B.C. (culminating in collapse in 258 B.C.).
Under the leadership of An Duong Vuong, the King Arthur of Vietnam, a small kingdom of ethnic Viet tribes called Au Lac formed in the 3rd century B.C. The tiny kingdom centered on the ancient capital near Co Loa, north of present-day Hanoi. The Au Lac were eventually absorbed into the Chinese Qin dynasty in 221 B.C., but as that dynasty crumpled, a Chinese general by the name of Chao Tuo, or Trieu Da in Vietnamese, conquered the northern regions in 207 B.C. and established Nan Yueh, a Chinese term meaning "Far South" (called Nam Viet in Vietnamese), an autonomous principality that would be handled as a "rogue territory" by the Chinese for hundreds of years to come.
The Chinese Millenium
From 111 B.C., Vietnam was under Chinese rule, this time as part of the Han Empire. Vietnam would remain part of greater China for the next thousand years. The Chinese form of writing was adopted (to be replaced by a Roman alphabet in the 17th c.), Confucianism was instated as the leading ideology, and Chinese governors were installed as local rulers. The Chinese were heavy-handed colonists, seeking to profit on the backs of the conquered Vietnamese, imposing forced labor, and extracting high taxes at sword point.
For centuries, few effectively challenged Chinese rule until the Ba Trung sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, took the place of their executed dissident husbands and, in a wave of popular support and revolutionary spirit that is revered to this day, staged the Hai Ba Trung Rebellion (literally, the "Two Sister's Rebellion") in A.D. 39. The sisters, leading an angry horde, expelled the Chinese and ruled the northern kingdom for just 3 years before the Chinese resumed control and the sisters, in their shame, drowned themselves. The Hai Ba Trung Rebellion stands out only because of its brief success and was really just an early incarnation of the many rebellions against Chinese rule that would follow through the long Chinese control -- rebellions that, despite their tenacity, all ended under the brutal thumb of tyrannical Chinese rule.
Dong Son Culture: Vietnam's Non-Chinese Origins -- First discovered in 1924 near the Ma River in the far north near Dong Son (thus the name), Dong Son Drums are large, ornate brass kettles supposedly dating as far back as the 7th century B.C. But early research of these sites was shoddy, and the French Ecole d'Extrème Orient used some rather loose evidence to posit the existence of a unified society throughout the region and named the culture Dong Son after its first discovery. So the truth about these ancient and obviously well-organized civilizations is still in question, and although Vietnamese cling to the Dong Son Drum as evidence of an early, very advanced, and, most important, autonomous (read "not Chinese") civilization, questions remain. Many archaeologists believe that the Dong Son cultures originated from outside incursions of Austronesian groups.
What we do know for sure is that the drums were produced by a very advanced early civilization (from the 7th c. B.C. to the 1st and 2nd c. A.D.) and made from sandstone and terra-cotta molds. Each drum is unique, with some commonalities, like the small sculptures of frogs around the faces of some drums, as well as images of the sun and of the Lac Bird.
The Vietnamese Millenium
One of the greatest triumphs of the loosely unified Viet people came in 939 B.C. when Ngo Quyen defeated the Chinese at Bach Dang, a naval battle of legend in which the Vietnamese surprised their enemy by placing massive pikes in the waters of Halong Bay, where the Chinese boats were run aground and ransacked. Although Ngo Quyen died and Vietnam fell into a prolonged civil war under the Ngo dynasty, Vietnam was finally free of China.
In 968 B.C., Dinh Bo Linh pacified, unified, and made extensive treaties to keep Vietnam a fully autonomous Chinese vassal state. So began the ascendancy of Vietnam's mandarins, a high caste of intelligentsia who created special schools for promising Vietnamese to be groomed into the country's elite. All education was conducted in Chinese by Chinese, and Mandarins exerted great influence. These concessions meant that Vietnam was free to run its affairs independent of the Chinese, other than the regular tolls it paid to mother China. Vietnam benefited from this adoption of China's educational system, as well as inherited technologies of math and science, the lunar calendar, and both legal and educational systems. The Chinese imprint is still visible today in Vietnam's Confucian traditions, architecture, and even today's pell-mell thrust toward a market economy.
Vietnam's long period of autonomy was not without peril, however, as incursions from the Cham in what is now central Vietnam and the Khmer in the far south put pressure on the burgeoning united state. The kingdom flourished and strengthened, enough for the Vietnamese to repel the intrusion of Mongol invaders under Kublai Khan from the north, and armies from the kingdom of Champa from Danang and the east, in the mid-13th century. Vietnam gradually absorbed the Cham Empire and made progressive claims on Khmer land as far as the Mekong Delta.
In 1400, China once again occupied Hanoi, reclaiming its foundering vassal as its own, until, in that same year, a peasant uprising changed everything, something like the popular movement of the two Trung sisters. Socialist historians pointed to this as evidence of the true revolutionary spirit among Vietnamese.
Even after the shortest trip in Vietnam, you'll recognize the name Le Loi from street signs everywhere. Le Loi was a rich landowner who organized resistance to the occupying Chinese forces from a base high in the mountains. In 1426 he achieved a great military victory at Sontay and at Lam Son in the far north, vanquishing the Chinese and paving the way to his becoming emperor, renaming himself Le Thai To. He reigned from 1428 to 1527 and heralded what many call a "golden age" in Vietnam under the Le Kings, a time where the country came into its own, developing a new education system and penal code, especially under the rule of Emperor Le Thanh Tong.
Instability at court was rife, however, and the country was eventually split along north-south lines in 1545; the north followed the Le dynasty, and the south followed the Nguyen, with ongoing conflict between the two.
Europeans, particularly the French, seized upon Vietnamese instability and Catholic missions, and European traders began to come ashore. French Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes arrived in Vietnam in the 17th century and created a Romanized Vietnamese script, an important milestone in Vietnamese literacy and accessibility to the West.
Continued clan tension between the north and south led to numerous failed peasant revolts, until the Tay Son Rebellion in central Vietnam near the town of Quy Nhon saw the ascendancy of Nguyen Hue, who proclaimed himself the Emperor Quang Trung and fought to obliterate the Nguyen in the south and the Trinh in the north, effectively uniting Vietnam under one banner.
When Quang Trung died without an heir in 1792, Nguyen Anh, a southerner, declared himself king in 1802 and adopted the name Gia Long. For the first time, he called the country Vietnam. The Nguyen Capital was in Hue, and the Citadel and grand tombs of the fallen Nguyen kings still stand.
By the 1850s, the French had already settled in the region, the arms of the Catholic Church reaching far and wide and exacting more and more influence. The French pressed for further control and, in 1847, attacked Danang, which became the French city of Tourane. Three decades later -- after first capturing Saigon, then Cambodia, then central Vietnam (or Anam), and later the north -- France signed a treaty as the official protectorate of Vietnam in 1883. And so began some 80 years of colonial rule once again in Vietnam.
French Colonial Rule & the First War of Indochina
Some recent media, the likes of Graham Green's The Quiet American (made into a film with Michael Caine in 2001) or Indochine, portray colonial Vietnam as an ephemeral time of gentle European eccentrics and explorers in starched white collars (usually sweaty) traipsing around an exotic landscape of cacophonous streets or padding about dark opium dens among erotic temptresses in the traditional ao dai dress, a romanticized image of Vietnam as a land of exotic pleasures. Missing are scenes of Vietnamese under the lash of the colonists. Missing are scenes of desperate peasant revolts, poverty, and forced labor. By the 1900s, a general equanimity was reached between the Vietnamese and their occupiers, who painted themselves as benevolent benefactors of culture and education. But it was that education, and the writings of French patriots like Rousseau and Voltaire, that fueled Vietnamese ire over French subjugation. The fighting was soon to follow.
Early-20th-century resistance, like the Quan Phuc Hoi movement that sought restoration of an autonomous Vietnam or the Tonkin Free School Movement that preached ascendancy of Vietnamese traditions and culture, imminently failed or were brutally crushed by the French, and the numbers in the notorious prisons, like the Hanoi Hilton, swelled to breaking points. The proud people of Vietnam bristled under colonial rule, and in 1930 revolution found fertile ground to establish a nationalist movement, especially with the return of Nguyen Tat Thanh, otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh. Uncle Ho rose from relative obscurity and a long life as an expatriate and exile. He overcame the limitations of his rather frail carriage and bearing to become the leader of decades of struggle. World War II and occupation by the Japanese in 1940 helped fuel the movement by creating chaos and nationalist fervor, and in celebration of the retreat of the Japanese, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam an independent nation in August 1945.
However, the French, in defiance of international pressure, returned to Vietnam at the end of World War II and took the north as their own once again, infuriating Communists who had, but briefly, seen a window of opportunity for self-governance. The French didn't agree with Ho Chi Minh's cleverly versed plea for autonomy and democracy. On September 2, 1945, he began with the famed quote from the U.S. declaration that "All men are created equal." Despite international pressure for full French withdrawal from their interests in Indochina, the French -- under leadership of plucky Gen. Charles de Gaulle in an effort to restore French colonial glory -- sent a large expeditionary force. Guerilla fighting in all of the provinces escalated, and in November 1946, in reaction to Vietnamese attacks, the French shelled Haiphong, the major port city in the far north, killing an estimated 6,000 and heralding a new colonial struggle, this time by a highly motivated Viet Minh with popular support and credibility. After 7 years of French/Viet Minh conflict -- and despite heavy backing by Eisenhower (the U.S. supplied planes and 80% of the war costs) -- the French, dug in at Dien Bien Phu, made the fatal blunder of being cavalier about their enemy's capacities: They chose a wide, shallow valley where they assumed that their superior artillery could handle any attack.
General Giap, Vietnam's top strategist, had acquired heavy artillery from China and, with a huge heroic effort of human will, hauled his new hardware over mountain passes to surround the wide valley at Dien Bien Phu. The French were completely surprised. In short order, the airstrip was destroyed and the French were cut off. Supplies and new troops arrived via airlift, but the Viet Minh were relentless, engaging a vicious trench ground war -- Vietnamese proudly declare that the siege of Dien Bien Phu was won not by bullets and bombs, but with Vietnamese resolve and the shovel. The battle lasted 25 days, with Viet Minh troops winning by inches, but with heavy casualties on both sides. Brave French and South Vietnamese paratroopers dropped into the battle site in the 11th hour when hope was surely lost, but on May 7, 1954, the Viet Minh made their final assault. When the smoke cleared, North Vietnamese rejoiced to what looked like the end of a foreign empire.
Meeting in Geneva, all sides agreed that Vietnam would be partitioned at the 17th parallel (a line that would come to mark the front in the next war), and the country would hold free elections 2 years hence. The north would be ruled in the interim by Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Viet Minh, and the south by Ngo Dinh Diem, a U.S.-backed expatriate politician.
When election time arrived, Diem, facing likely defeat from the populist candidate Ho Chi Minh, withdrew from the election, breaking his promise at the Geneva Convention, and so began the struggle that pitted a reluctant superpower against a headstrong nationalist movement. The Viet Minh became the Viet Cong, and the war of attrition was on.
The Second War of Indochina: Vietnam & the United States
In 1961, in the hopes of supporting democracy in South Vietnam, President John F. Kennedy tentatively escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam based on fears of the domino effect, a phrase set forth by former President Eisenhower and popularized by Robert McNamara, then U.S. secretary of defense. The idea was that, with the support of "Red China," the countries of Southeast Asia, mostly poor, developing nations with large rural populations, were susceptible to Communist ideology, then the world's greatest perceived evil. Vietnam -- being closest to China and heavily reliant on Chinese aid -- would, the theory went, be the first to fall. The domino effect meant that Vietnam's fall would trigger grass-roots Communist movements in neighboring Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma, and on to the rest of south Asia. Vietnam, and specifically the 17th Parallel, is where U.S. ideologues chose to draw the line in the mud.
In its earliest stages, U.S. involvement was meant to "win the hearts and minds of the people." Hoping to model the benefits of capitalism and lead the fight with humanitarian efforts, there were many doctors and educators among early advisors, but most met with skepticism and armed resistance from a peasantry well versed in taking bonbons from imperial forces by day and practicing subterfuge by night.
Southern president Diem was an unpopular, heavy-handed ruler. In the early 1960s, southern Buddhists began to protest against Diem's unfairness and persecution of Buddhists and rural people (Diem was a staunch Catholic). In a famous image from the war, an elder monk set himself aflame in Saigon on June 11, 1963. Unrest in the south was growing, but the U.S. still backed Diem right up until the coup d'état in November 1963 and Diem's demise. Three weeks later, President Kennedy was assassinated.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident was a watershed moment in the Vietnam War. Reports vary, and many believe that the U.S. engineered or exaggerated the events of August 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin, when two U.S. ships, the Maddox and the Turner Joy, were reportedly attacked while patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin near Hanoi. In response, President Lyndon Johnson bombed Hanoi, the first of many large-scale bombing campaigns; the U.S. Congress also passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving the U.S. president broad powers to wage war in Vietnam. Though hardly the sinking of the Lusitania or the attack on Pearl Harbor, the incident at Tonkin set off an irreversible chain of events. U.S. bombing campaigns increased in 1965 with the hopes that the North Vietnamese would just surrender or come to the bargaining table -- in fact, they never would, and the many civilian deaths caused by Operation Rolling Thunder merely steeled northern resolve. War protests in the U.S. began as early as 1965 with the Students for a Democratic Society march on Washington, D.C.
Official war was never declared in Vietnam, but on March 8, 1965, President Johnson dispatched the first full contingent of over 3,000 American combat troops to Danang to prop up the south. The Soviet Union and China weighed in with assistance to the north. The rest is history. You couldn't turn the channel on what would be called the "Living Room War," the first combat to be reported on television nightly, and the first to be so hotly debated in public consciousness. Americans had always believed that they fought, and won, wars that were justified, but Vietnam was a confounding exception. Early images of U.S. troops burning villages raised more questions than support at home, and just as the number of U.S. casualties increased, so did youthful protest and dissent. Vietnam divided the United States for generations, and many see the years of discord between political "hawks and doves" as molding political consciousness and public activism in America.
The statistics tell this story best: Two and a half million U.S. military personnel served during the 15-year conflict -- 58,000 gave their lives in action, some 300,000 were wounded, and countless numbers suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The war cost the United States over $900 billion. U.S. planes dropped 8 billion pounds of bombs (more than four times the tonnage of all of World War II), and along with Operation Ranch Hand, the systematic spraying of carcinogenic defoliants, Vietnam was left nearly a wasteland.
Three million lives were lost on the Vietnamese side -- more than half were civilians. After the war, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese were put in reeducation camps, and an untold number of "boat people" fleeing oppression died at sea due to storms or at the hands of the South China Sea's rabid pirates (most of the lucky few who made it languished in a refugee camp for years before being able to find placement abroad). Tens of thousands of deaths were due to land mines and UXO (unexploded ordinances) in Vietnam since 1975, and tens of thousands more still suffer deformities because of exposure to U.S. chemical defoliants.
Troops numbered just 200,000 in 1965, but by the end of 1968, the totals were over 540,000. In November 1965, the United States had a flying success in the first open battle of the war in the Ia Drang Valley in the Central Highlands. With its superior fire power and air support, the United States succeeded in herding Viet Cong troops into the open, and though the United States suffered heavy casualties, the success at Ia Drang bolstered U.S. resolve that the war could be won.
But Vietnam was a guerilla war, an episodic war against an enemy happy to win by inches, to suffer major casualties in order to break American resolve, to attack, retreat, and wait. The Viet Cong troops, with basic support from China, could subsist, they said, on a cup of rice and a cup of bullets each day, and the Ho Chi Minh supply line, a trail "complex" more than a road, could never be stopped by U.S. might. The North Vietnamese also were able to attack and retreat into neighboring Laos and Cambodia. Clever "tiger traps" and anti-personnel mines and snares set by the North Vietnamese troops were also demoralizing to a mostly drafted (that is, nonvoluntary) U.S. force. The Vietnamese built elaborate tunnel complexes and had many spies in the ranks of the south.
The mountainous jungles of Vietnam meant that the United States could not use tanks or armored personnel carriers in combat. U.S. techniques were to use defoliants, establish defoliated perimeters around fixed positions, and patrol to hunt down an enemy -- tactics that played right into the Vietnamese strategy of attack and retreat.
U.S. soldiers fought valiantly, but the strategy of a "limited war" meant that the army had to fight one-handed and was unable to mount a full attack, mostly for fear of reprisals from nearby China or the Soviet Union. The U.S. was losing the "war of attrition" to a highly motivated North Vietnamese force, while the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the troops who fought alongside the U.S. GIs, was notoriously indifferent.
The tide of the war turned with the Tet Offensive in late 1968. U.S. Gen. William Westmoreland put all of his eggs in one basket, amassing the bulk of U.S. forces along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the 17th Parallel in expectation of a full frontal attack from the north. U.S. forces faced devastating attacks near Khe San in the months leading up to it, but after major diversionary attacks at Hue, just north of the DMZ, North Vietnamese forces instead made an end run through neighboring Laos and Cambodia, connected with troops loyal to the revolution embedded in the south, and penetrated into the heart of Saigon, even taking the U.S. Embassy briefly. Northern General Giap's tactics were a great risk, and losses on the North Vietnamese side were heavy, but the Tet Offensive was the beginning of the end of the war -- at home in the United States and on the ground in Vietnam.
After Tet came the devastating My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968, where a platoon led by Lieut. William Calley went on a rampage that left 500 villagers dead and a world wondering what was happening in Vietnam. "The whole world is watching!" the demonstrators shouted at the 1968 Democratic convention -- and it was. U.S. troops returning to the United States were met with jeers. There were "two wars," actually: the military war of bombs and guns in Vietnam, and the political war in the United States, a country undergoing drastic social changes.
The Paris Peace Talks began in the same year that the U.S. election brought Richard Nixon to the stage, and troop reductions began just a year later. Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 of natural causes, but his memory was a rallying cry, while back in the United States, protests became violent in Kent State University, where national guardsmen shot and killed four unarmed protestors. The Paris Peace Accords finally became a success, and the United States ceased bombing North Vietnam. A massive exchange of prisoners took place at the DMZ, and "Vietnamization" of the war began -- in other words, U.S. combat ended and turned the war over to the South Vietnamese.
After more than a decade of fighting, the Communists took Saigon on April 30, 1975, and in 1976 the north and south were officially reunited.
Rather than enjoying the newfound peace after driving out the United States, Vietnam invaded Cambodia after border skirmishes in 1978. China, friend of Cambodia, then invaded Vietnam in 1979.
At home, Communist ideology made for empty stomachs, and international trade embargoes and faltering support from the Soviet Union made life difficult for the Vietnamese. Though postwar Vietnam was autonomous, proud, and full of principles, the rice hampers were empty. By 1988, all Soviet aid was gone. Millions were starving and inflation neared 1,000%. Desperate boat people, many of the unfortunate Vietnamese who had complied with the Americans, took to the seas on leaky boats, and many met horrible fates at the hands of the South China Sea's deadly pirates.
Faced with disaster, the Vietnamese government began implementing the new ideas of Doi Moi, a free-market policy that decentralized business, allowing private citizens and farmers to own land and the Vietnamese currency to trade on international markets. To ingratiate itself with the international community in the hope of aid and trade, Vietnam withdrew its army from Cambodia in 1989, and as the 1990s began, the country began opening to the world. After peace with Cambodia and Vietnam's move to market economy, the United States lifted its long-standing trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994, and the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1995. Vietnam also joined ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and recent years have seen one milestone after another toward cooperation: a visit by President Bill Clinton in 2000, huge economic aid packages and commitments to cooperation, answers to long-standing questions about U.S. POWs, and U.S. assistance to victims of Agent Orange. Vietnam hosted the Asian Games in 2003, putting its best foot forward in what was a coup for international opinion. American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met with Vietnam's defense minister in Washington, D.C., in 2003, and the USS Vandergrift pulled into port in Ho Chi Minh City at about the same time, the first U.S. Navy ship to dock in a Vietnamese port since hasty withdrawal in 1975. Telling signs, indeed.
The per-capita income of Vietnam (less than $800) may seem low by Western standards, but the number is steadily rising each year. Unfortunately, the gap between urban and rural incomes remains noticeably large: Recent data indicates the per-capita income of the entire nation is $726, while Ho Chi Minh City's is a whopping $1,800. The country's stated goal -- to become a middle-class country by 2010 -- means raising per-capita income to at least $1,000. Economic analysts believe this goal is attainable. Meanwhile, the country's status as an Asian "Tiger Economy" was solidified with its ascension to the World Trade Organization in early 2007. Shortly afterward, President Nguyen Minh Triet became the first Vietnamese head of state to visit Washington since the war ended. These are exciting times for Vietnam. And while Communist rhetoric still exists as an all-encompassing nationalism, the Vietnamese look toward a bright and very different future in the free market.