The Vietnam War is still the most photographed and filmed conflict of all time, when photojournalists (and TV journalists) had unrestricted access to the battlefield—in South Vietnam, that is—bringing the war into many living rooms worldwide. Some of the images have been carved into collective memory, such as Eddie Adams’ picture of a summary execution in the streets of Saigon, and Nick Ut’s photo of Kim Phuc running away from her bombed and burning village.
Vietnam was the Cold War’s largest and most notorious frontline. In fear of an all-consuming nuclear war, the United States and the Soviet Union avoided a direct military confrontation. Nevertheless, both superpowers did fight each other with weapons in the form of proxy wars such as Vietnam, where the United States supported the south and the Soviet Union, and China, backed up the north.
The seeds of war were sown during Vietnam’s struggle for independence after World War II, when communists led by Ho Chi Minh fought and defeated the French colonial power. In 1954, Vietnam was divided into North and South Vietnam along the 17th parallel.
From the start, the United States supported the unstable regime in the south with money, arms and so-called military advisers, to create a stand against the communist north that was infiltrating the south as well. After a military incident in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, the US Congress authorized military action in the region. This decision led to the arrival of 200,000 American combat troops in South Vietnam one year later, eventually leading up to 500,000 troops in 1967.
The Tet Offensive in January 1968, when North Vietnamese troops and the Viet Cong launched a large-scale attack on major cities in South Vietnam, became a turning point in the conflict. Confronted with a growing opposition to the war at home, US President Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to send over new troops. His successor Richard Nixon proclaimed a policy of ‘Vietnamization’, which implied that the South-Vietnamese army would gradually take over the combat role of withdrawing US ground troops.
In 1970, Nixon’s national security adviser Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho on behalf of the North Vietnamese government started peace talks in Paris, which led to a ceasefire agreement in January 1973. Immediately, both sides began to release their prisoners of war, and by March 1973, the United States had pulled troops out completely. Two years later, in 1975, North Vietnam invaded the south and, while the last American military advisers hastily left, took control of the whole country, which became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The Vietnam War (or American War, as it is called in Vietnam) was long and bloody. The Vietnamese estimate that between 1954 and 1975 about one million communist fighters and four million civilians died. According to US numbers, nearly 60,000 American soldiers died or went missing in action, 300,000 were injured and about 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed.
In terms of media coverage, the Vietnam War was unique: not only did journalists have unlimited access, it was also the first war where images had a profound influence on the public opinion. Although an indisputable connection between media imagery and the course of war has never been demonstrated, the idea that photos and TV footages had played a major role in political and strategic decisions firmly fixed itself in the collective consciousness. This perception of the Vietnam War would also influence the US restrictions imposed on the media during the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), the war in Afghanistan (2001-) and the Iraq War (2003-2010).
Considered the most divisive conflict in American history since the Civil War, the Vietnam War was a prolonged struggle whose ramifications can still be felt today. Despite Vietnam having no intrinsic value to the US, the American involvement was in the larger context of the cold war and its containment policy. US's foreign policy in the 1950s and the 1960 was focused on stopping the spread of communism across the globe. Consequently, when communists moved to take control of South Vietnam in the mid 1950, the US set out to stop it. The conflict started with non-violent forms of intervention before escalating into full blown combat. In the 1940s, a series of conflicts had been fought in the Vietnam region. The Japanese invaded portions of Vietnam in 1941 creating a power struggle with the French which had ruled the region for close to six decades.
The volatile state of affairs prompted the Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh to return to the country on grounds of nationalism and establish an independent government. By the year 1954, the Vietnamese had fought for independence and won, splitting the country into the North and South Vietnam allied to communist and non-communists respectively. Due to weak and poor leadership of individuals like Ngo Dinh Diem, a number of South Vietnamese became communist sympathizers, leading to the creation of the National Liberation Front (NLF) simply known as Viet Cong in 1960.
The guerilla warfare between the South Vietnamese government and the Vietcong escalated, eventually forcing the US government to send ground troops. The first US ground troops were sent in March 1965 under the authority of President Lyndon Johnson. The overall objective was to aid the South Vietnamese defense forces eliminate the communist sympathizers. The war was multifaceted, with ground troops concentrating on the South while aerial bombings extended to the North. Despite having superior weapons, the American troops had to fight against a more determined and well supplied Viet Cong.
The Vietcong used a series of complex networks of underground tunnels to attack and escape making the fight even more intricate. The conflict finally came to an end on April 30, 1975 when South Vietnam finally surrendered to North Vietnam. An estimated 1.1 million Vietnamese and 58,000 American soldiers had been killed. Thousands were also severely disabled, some lost limbs while others sustained multiple amputations and nearly half of Vietnam's land was destroyed. Even in the 21st Century, questions are still asked on why the US had to commit its resources and military personnel to a war with unclear goals and objectives.