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The Vietnam War, or simply Vietnam: how often do we hear the expression used offhandedly, in the unspoken belief that speaker and listener both understand what is meant? This assumption of shared understanding is deceptive, for the expression has become a code word for events, situations and conditions which, although related, are anything but synonymous. Depending on who says it and to whom, it can have strikingly different meanings, even historically. For the French, the primary reference is to the struggle between French colonial forces and the Viet Minh for control of Indochina a struggle which began in the wake of World War II and ended with the partition of Vietnam at Geneva in 1954. To the Vietnamese the phrase is evocative of a longer struggle, that for Vietnamese independence from foreign domination and colonial exploitation and for freedom from internal repression, though repression by whom depends on the speaker's political persuasion. The Vietnamese, communist and anti-Communist alike, are likely to agree that the struggle began long ago and remains unresolved. Cambodians and Laotians view the war differently; though Cambodia and Laos, like Vietnam, were part of the French Empire the three nations were swallowed up in the war at different times and in different ways. For Cambodia, the war entered a new phase when the Vietnamese invaded in December 1978 to overthrow the Khymer Rouge regime, a phase which still continues in a brutal, uncompromising and complex guerrilla war. China and the Soviet Union were also involved, and Chinese and Soviet perspectives on when the war started, when it ended - or if indeed it has - are no doubt both distinct and different from each other. The same point can be made with respect to the Thais, who were involved in support of the United States no less than were the Soviets and Chinese in support of Ho Chi Minh and his followers. America, of course, has its own perspective.
One might argue that the conflict should more properly be called the Southeast Asia War, as indeed it is on occasion, for it directly involved not just Vietnam, but also Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. The other nations of Southeast Asia were indirectly involved in one way or another and, in many cases, this indirect involvement was pivotal: the modest Filipino commitment to South Vietnam in terms of civic actions and medical assistance pales in importance beside U.S. reliance on air and naval bases in the Philippines. U.S. bases in Taiwan and Japan, technically not Southeast Asian nations but nevertheless major economic powers in the region, were of comparable importance. The extent of direct Chinese involvement is a matter of debate: some analysts believe that construction troops and perhaps radar and anti-aircraft artillery units of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army served in North Vietnam during the American phase of the war, and French sources assert that Chinese troops suppressed anti-Communist guerrillas in northern North Vietnam. Be that as it may, the crucial importance of Chinese support to the Viet Minh, and later North Vietnam, both logistical and in terms of sanctuary provided is undisputed.
Moreover, much of the war was fought beyond the boundaries of Vietnam. The war in Laos is a case in point. This encompassed a complex struggle between indigenous royalists, communists and neutralists; a Viet Minh invasion which turned into an occupation; a struggle between communist forces and indigenous guerrillas, supported first by France, then by the U.S. and Thailand; and, finally, and arguably the most important point in terms of effort expended, a bitterly contested campaign by U.S. air forces to restrict the flow of communist supplies into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The campaign against communist supply lines in southern Laos, mounted largely from Thai bases, was connected only incidentally to the rest of the war in Laos and was, in fact, part of the war in Vietnam in every way except geographically. The war spilled over into Thailand in the form of a communist-led insurgency in the northeast which was supported by North Vietnam. The southern termini of the Ho Chi Minh Trail were in Cambodia, and communist bases along the Cambodian/Vietnamese border featured prominently in the war from beginning to end. The Cambodian civil war which erupted after the Lon Nol coup of March 1970, though politically distinct from the struggles around it, was inseparable from them operationally, and the fall of Phnom Penh in April 1975 heralded that of Saigon less than two weeks later. The struggle for popular support in the United States was also a decisive campaign of the war, one that was connected not only to events in Vietnam, but to the other struggles mentioned above. Significantly, anti-war activism in the United States peaked in the wake of President Nixon's invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970.
The conflict might even be considered global, with the Korean War constituting the first phase. In fact, the connections between Korea and Vietnam were many: French forces fought in Korea and communist China supplied the Viet Minh with U.S. equipment capture there; later, South Korea dispatched a major expeditionary force to South Vietnam. American aviators over North Vietnam and Laos fought against more advance versions of the Soviet air defense systems which had opposed them in Korea and Soviet sources have recently confirmed that Soviet troops, notable surface-to-air missile (SAM) specialists, saw combat in Vietnam. Free-world shipping clogged Saigon harbor and, during the American phase, Haiphong harbor was similarly clogged with ships of the Warsaw Pact nations. At one time or another, Indian, Canadian, Polish and Hungarian troops saw peace-keeping duty in Indochina, and Cuban interrogators were given access to captured American aviators in North Vietnam. However, in the final analysis, Vietnamese considerations predominated. The major strategic issues of the war were resolved by the hostilities which began in 1946 near Haiphong, impelled by the Vietnamese desire for independence from French rule, and ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon to the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN). The political factors that established the pace and geographic focus of the conflict were Vietnamese throughout and, when all is said and done, the outcome was determined by Vietnamese leaders and Vietnamese combatants. This is not to deny the importance of external intervention; the shape, pace and intensity of the war was determined at times by the French, the Chinese, the Americans and the Soviets. The Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu would have been impossible without Chinese and Soviet logistic support, and the same point can be made with respect to the final communist offensive which took Saigon. Similarly, the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) would not have fought as long and hard as they did without massive U.S. logistic and technical assistance: Nevertheless, the center of gravity of the war was Vietnamese from beginning to end and that is why the term Vietnam War fits... not perfectly, perhaps, but then few such labels do. To approach the conflict from the American viewpoint does not imply value judgement, simply fact. The United States of America became deeply involved in Vietnam and that involvement had serious consequences. That those consequences affected not only America - nor even particularly America - renders the American perspective no less valid. The impact of the war on the nations of Southeast Asia-Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in particular - was far greater ,appoint too many Americans are prone to forget. But that impact was shaped in no small measure by the United States, its armed forces and its government. Finally, the United States which emerged from Vietnam was very different from the on which went in, a matter of no small significance in international affairs. Thus, even if we accept the primacy of the Asian point of view, the American perspective is still worth examining in its own right. This book concentrates on the period from 1960, the middle of a period of transition between the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, in which the preservation of a non-communist South Vietnam became a national policy underwritten by military action, and 1975, when the fall of Saigon marked the failure of that policy.
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