Background on Vietnam
The East Asian peninsula of Vietnam is a long, narrow country, bordered by China, Cambodia, Laos, and the South China Sea. The Chinese wanted con- trol of this fertile rice-growing nation, and occupied it from 200 BC until AD 939, when the Vietnamese won a measure of independence. In 1428, Vietnam finally won complete independence from China.
France seized control of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in 1883, combining the three nations into one colony called French Indochina. Nguyen Tat Thanh, one of the leaders of the Vietnamese resistance to French authority, became known to history as Ho Chi Minh, or “He Who Enlightens.” During the 1940s, Ho organized a resistance movement known as the Viet Minh, or the League for the Independence of Vietnam. In 1945, France refused to accept Ho’s declaration of Vietnamese independence; the United States supported France, both because it was a longtime ally and because Ho was a Communist.
After World War II, one Southeast Asian/Pacific Island nation after another turned Communist, seeming to prove Eisenhower’s “domino theory” that when one fell, it would knock the next one over. The United States poured money into the French effort to regain control over Indochina, while Communist China aided the Viet Minh. The guerrilla tactics of the Viet Minh were very effective against a French fighting force that was unfamiliar with the Vietnamese jungles. At Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam, the Viet Minh out- numbered and trapped the French. American reinforcements never arrived; President Eisenhower did not want to commit American troops to another war in Asia so soon after their return from Korea. The French surrendered on May 7, 1954.
The peace conference in Geneva involved several nations: France, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, China, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. China had two goals: to limit American influence in Asia, and to prevent Vietnam from becoming a strong, united nation. The United States wanted to limit Communist influence in the region. In the end, the nations agreed to divide Vietnam along the 17th parallel, with the Viet Minh taking control in North Vietnam and the French taking control in the south. With the United States abstaining, the other nations agreed that in 1956, Vietnam would hold general elections and reunify the nation under one government.
With American backing, government official Ngo Dinh Diem became president of the Republic of South Vietnam in 1955; in a so-called election, he received far more votes than there were voters to cast them. Diem was highly unpopular among his subjects for several reasons. First, he was a Catholic in a Buddhist nation. Second, his policies benefited the rich and harmed the working poor. Third, he placed his relatives, regardless of their abilities, in powerful positions in the government. Fourth, he was ruthless to all who disagreed with him politically, often having people tortured or imprisoned.
The Geneva Accords stated that Vietnam should have had free elections in 1956. Diem refused to hold the election, as he was certain that he would lose to Ho Chi Minh in spite of secret U.S. operations to sabotage a likely Communist victory. Underground resistance to Diem’s policies continued. The Viet Minh had taken control of North Vietnam, but many of its members had stayed in South Vietnam. Now the Viet Minh in the north began sending weapons to those in the south, who became known as the Viet Cong. In 1960, they formed an organization called the National Liberation Front with the goal of overthrowing Diem’s government and reuniting the two halves of Vietnam under Communist rule.
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