A Brief History
On December 16, 1965, General William Westmoreland, the American commander in Viet Nam requested an additional 243,000 US troops to go with the 184,300 US military men already in South Viet Nam. It was not enough, and it would never be enough.
Viet Nam was part of the French colony of French Indochina, and had fought for its independence with success in 1954, but splitting the country between the communist North Viet Nam and democratic South Viet Nam. The communist North was determined to reunite the country under the communist banner, and was supported by the USSR and Communist China.
The US had small numbers of military advisers in South Viet Nam to counter the local rebels, known as Viet Minh and Viet Cong. By 1959 there were about 5000 Viet Cong operating in South Viet Nam and the US had only a couple of hundred advisers. By 1964 the US had escalated their involvement based on the fictitious attack on the US Navy at the gulf of Tonkin, with 16,500 US troops in Viet Nam at that time.
By this time, VC numbers had grown to about 100,000 in South Viet Nam, and it was apparent the listless and unmotivated South Vietnamese Army was not going to preserve their own country, meaning the US had to step up the effort if the South would remain independent. In 1965 the US had 184,300 troops in country, and in 1966 the number had swelled to 385,300. Of course, the generals needed more so victory could be guaranteed. In 1967 the number of US troops rose to 485,600, a considerable amount of military men considering the German Army only put 200,000 into battle during the Battle of the Bulge, the largest battle fought by the US in Europe during World War II.
Claiming victory was almost at hand if they could just get more troops, the generals and defense department people sent 536,100 young men to Viet Nam for 1968, a truly serious commitment. Unfortunately for the US, this was the year of the Tet Offensive sneak attack by the North Viet Nam Army and Viet Cong, which although a terrible defeat for the communists, finally got across to the American people that the communists were willing to suffer incredible casualties for decades if necessary, and that the US and its meager allies would have to also commit to suffering many times more casualties over many more years at astronomical cost if the US planned on “winning.”
In 1969 and subsequent years the US reduced the amount of military men in Viet Nam until giving up and leaving in 1973, retaining just a tiny force of 50 advisers. In 1975 the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong finished the victory, and Viet Nam was united as a communist country.
Perhaps as many as 2 million + Vietnamese civilians on both sides died, and another couple million military personnel. The US lost 68,000 killed (58,000 in combat) and spent over a trillion dollars (in 2015 dollars) on the war. It was clear, the Vietnamese communists would spend more lives, time and money until they reached victory, while the US had reached its limit.
Question for students (and subscribers): Should the US have spent more time, men and money on the Viet Nam War? How much of each would have been the right amount? How much of each is too much? Share your thoughts on this topic with us in the comments section below this article. (Troop numbers from Defense Manpower Data Center.)
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For more information, please see…
Sorley, Lewis. Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.