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  • Writer's pictureMichael Stewart

Who Started the Vietnam War?

I had just started infant school when part two of the Vietnam War began. I say part two, as the Vietnam wars covered a period from 1946 right through to 1975, but part two is the war that features in all the Hollywood movies and is the bit we all remember. This lasted from August 1964 to April 1975 and marks the period where the United States became directly involved in the war and the conflict escalated significantly.

To understand the Vietnam War, it's important to know some of the historical background leading up to the event. The French Indochina War broke out in 1946 and went on for eight years, with France’s defence of their colonial territory largely funded and supplied by the United States. Finally, with their crushing defeat by the Viet Minh at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, the French rule in Indochina came to an abrupt end. The battle and the defeat led directly to the formation of the Geneva Accords in July 1954 which established a temporary de-militarised demarcation line at the Ben Hai River, which was a natural boundary at latitude 17° N. This was similar to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in Korea agreed upon at the end of that particular conflict the previous year, and was established ostensibly to create a ceasefire that would allow for the peaceful retreat of the French troops from the country.

The 17th parallel demarcation line separated the armed forces of the French and the Viet Minh. North of the line was the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam, under the control of the Worker’s or Communist Party led by Ho Chi Minh, with its capital in Hanoi. In the South the French transferred most of their authority to the State of Vietnam, which had its capital at Saigon and was nominally under the authority of the former Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai. It was agreed under the Geneva Accord that the 17th parallel demarcation line would disappear in 1956 following nationwide elections to decide the future of the whole of Vietnam.

In 1954 Ngo Dinh Diem was installed as the premier of a US and CIA backed South Vietnamese government by US President Eisenhower. In 1955, supported by the US government, Diem defeated Bao Dai in a government-controlled referendum, ousted the emperor and unilaterally pronounced himself President of a new Republic of South Vietnam. The US government then distributed a map (that the American media published as fact for the next two decades) clearly showing the ‘new’ unofficial and illegal ‘Republic of South Vietnam’.

20 July 1956 was the date specified in the Geneva Accords that the national elections to re-unify North and South Vietnam would be held. The elections were not held because President Diem stated the newly formed Republic of South Vietnam was not a party to the Accords. Most observers believe that Ho Chi Minh would have won the elections easily.

In the coming years the Pentagon consistently called the official democratic government of Vietnam, ‘North Vietnam’ and complained that the elected government in Hanoi ignored the fictitious boundary at the 17th parallel established by the US.

Over the next decade the US government sent American military advisers and vast amounts of weaponry to protect this newly created vassal state. However, by 1963, Diem’s corrupt, incompetent, anti-Buddhist and authoritarian regime was universally despised by the majority of the population of South Vietnam who increasingly protested Diem’s discrimination against them. On 1st November of that year the South Vietnamese army raised up against Diem and assassinated the autocratic leader along with his equally despised family. By the end of 1963, it was clear that the US’s effort to create a new country of South Vietnam had all but failed.

Meanwhile, in the north of the country, Ho Chi Minh, the heroic people’s leader who had vanquished the French colonialists was arguably the most popular man in all of Vietnam. The Vietnamese people, both north and south, recognised that the American-created government in the south was merely a puppet government of yet another colonial power that they wanted rid of. The US government realised their control of Vietnam, their base in Southeast Asia, was collapsing and could only be saved by a massive US military intervention. As fate would have it, the sitting US President, JF Kennedy who had been reluctant to support a military escalation in Vietnam, was assassinated just days after Diem, allowing a new President with more hawkish views to step in.

An excuse for war was needed.

A CIA-funded covert programme named Nautilus had for some time been training South Vietnamese mercenaries to conduct attacks against targets along the North Vietnamese coast as part of its effort to destabilise the government in the north. These operations however had been largely ineffective and so in January 1964, they were turned over to the US Navy under the control of the Pentagon and renamed Operational Plan 34A (OPLAN 34A). A US Navy base was set up in Danang and was staffed with US Navy SEALs, US Marine intelligence officers, and other guerrilla warfare experts. In February 1964, US Navy destroyers began provocative patrols along the coast of North Vietnam, often reaching inside the internationally accepted 12-mile territorial limit to monitor North Vietnamese communications and identify targets for OPLAN 34A attacks.

Due to the close proximity of the North Vietnamese and US armed forces, a confrontation was inevitable. This confrontation happened while the destroyer USS Maddox was stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin, collecting information on North Vietnamese forces. On the night of July 30th-31st 1964, the Maddox was offshore in the Gulf when a South Vietnamese Naval attack was launched against a radar installation on Hon Me Island. At the same time, two other South Vietnamese commando boats carried out a similar attack on Hanoi Island, 25 miles to the south. The Maddox returned to the same area on August 1st and was just four miles offshore when another South Vietnamese raid hit the island. The next day, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats appeared and approached the Maddox. The Maddox fled but the torpedo boats gave chase. Captain Herrick, the CEO of the Maddox, ordered his crew to open fire on them, firing over 280 three and five-inch shells at the North Vietnamese boats. The lead North Vietnamese Patrol boat launched two torpedoes at the Maddox, although it had little to no chance of hitting a fast-moving destroyer from the stern. The second boat attempted to do the same before being hit with shell fire. Meanwhile, four F-8 Crusader aircraft from the USS Ticonderoga, a nearby carrier, were rapidly approaching with orders to fire on the North Vietnamese Patrol boats. The first two Patrol boats received heavy damage from the fighter jets, and the third Patrol boat was left dead in the water and on fire. Only one North Vietnamese bullet hit the Maddox, causing no casualties. Three North Vietnamese torpedo boats were damaged, four North Vietnamese sailors were killed, and six were wounded.

The next day, the Maddox returned to its normal patrol route, and President Lyndon B Johnson ordered the destroyer USS Turner Joy to aid the Maddox and its patrols, as a sign of American resolve. Later that same night, more raids were conducted by the US and South Vietnamese government in an attempt at provoking the North Vietnamese.

On the morning of August 4th, 1964, US intelligence received reports that the North Vietnamese were making potentially offensive maritime manoeuvres. Unlike the clear conditions of the previous few days, that morning the seas were extremely rough with six-foot waves, rain, thunderstorms, and squalls. In addition to the dreadful weather conditions, the SP-40 long-range air search radar on the Maddox was inoperable, and the fire control radar on the Turner Joy was also out of action.

Because of the appalling conditions, Captain Herrick ordered his ship to move further out to sea so they would have more room to manoeuvre in case of an attack.

At 20:40 that evening, positioned over 100 miles away from the North Vietnamese Coastline, the Maddox reported they were tracking unidentified vessels approaching them on their radar. Over the next three hours, both US ships proceeded to carry out evasive manoeuvres to try and avoid any incoming torpedo attacks. Sailors claimed they saw cockpit lights and illumination from enemy ships and both ships began randomly firing at several supposed contacts. By the time the destroyers broke off their ‘counterattack’, they had fired 249 shells and five depth charges.

Flight Commander Stockdale, one of the pilots of the F8 Crusaders that had helped out on the August 2nd attacks was alone that night making runs over the two US ships while the attack was supposedly going on. He made the following statement later that evening, ‘I had the best seat in the house to watch that event and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets. There were no PT boats there, there was nothing there but black water and American firepower. Allow me to visualise the attack for you. So, you have the USS Maddox here and the Turner Joy, and they're making all these crazy evasive manoeuvres. They're shooting towards the enemy and they're shooting at nothing. They're shooting at nothing. They basically wasted three hours and everyone's time, and everyone's anxiety went through the roof, and they were shooting at nothing.’

Captain Herrick, despite initially believing the attacks and reporting them, also started to have his doubts. He talked with his crew and realised that the sonar operators were very eager, the equipment was not operating correctly, and many of the phantom targets they were picking up were probably caused by the radar bouncing off large waves. He believed they were likely false targets caused by natural phenomena which explained why they had not actually sighted any enemy vessels.

In the early hours of August 5th, at 1:27 am, Captain Herrick sent his initial report to Hawaii command in Honolulu. He stated, ‘This review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action is taken.’

The man who was receiving all the messages from the supposed battle and passing them on to the Pentagon and Washington was the fleet commander, Admiral Grant Sharp. To add to the confusion, a little over an hour after the initial report from the Maddox was received, at 02:48, Captain Herrick sent another report in which he changed his entire story. He had switched from believing it was an attack to thinking it wasn't an attack, and then seemingly back to thinking the attack was real again in just a few hours. In his revised report he stated that there were torpedoes passing the Turn of Joy and people saying they saw cockpit lights. "Trust me, this attack happened, it was real," he said. We will never really know what made Captain Herrick switch his story like this in the space of an hour, but we can speculate.

Even with him changing his story and stating the attack was real, Captain Herrick still could not confirm the exact number of boats involved in the attack, he could only speculate. Strangely enough, there was a further signal intelligence report that was supposedly from one of the North Vietnam patrol boats describing how they had lost two people during the attack. The report was shoddy at best, but back in Washington, Admiral Sharp phoned it in and exclaimed that the attacks were real.

Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara wasted no time in picking it up and running with the latest report and delivered the news to President LBJ.

President Johnson asked during an August 4th meeting of the National Security Council, "Do they want a war by attacking our ships in the middle of the Gulf of Tonkin?" CIA Director John McCone answered, "No, the Vietnamese are reacting defensively to our attacks on their offshore islands."

President Johnson was seeking an excuse to send American combat forces to Vietnam to prevent the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from taking over the South. He also wanted to defuse Republican Senator and Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's charges that ‘Lyndon Johnson was soft in the foreign policy arena.’

That same night the President went on TV to address the nation. "Repeated acts of violence against the Armed Forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defence but with positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak to you tonight," he said. Johnson informed the American people of the attack on US warships in the Gulf of Tonkin by gunboats from North Vietnam, and reports that a retaliatory attack is already in progress. He reiterated his firm commitment to secure a peaceful South Vietnam and described his plan to involve the UN Security Council and obtain an affirmative resolution from Congress.

President Johnson showed his toughness with an airstrike. After the speech was given, back on the Ticonderoga, Flight Commander Stockdale was ordered to carry out a retaliatory air strike for the supposed attack of the previous night. Unlike Captain Herrick, Commander Stockdale had no question in his mind what the truth was of the previous night. He later stated, "We were about to launch a war under false pretences in the face of the Military Commander's advice to the contrary." Despite his opinions, Flight Commander Stockdale piloted one of 18 US aircraft who conducted the raid on an oil storage facility at Binh, located just inland of where the fictitious attacks on the Maddux and Turner Joy had occurred. The oil depot was completely destroyed, while two American aircraft were shot down. One pilot was killed, and the second captured. The captured pilot, Lieutenant Everett Alvarez, remained a POW until 1973.

The Johnson administration then sought legal authority from the US Congress for unlimited military action in Vietnam. A few congressmen wanted the truth but Secretary McNamara eluded questioning by Senator Wayne Morse when he asked specifically whether the US Navy had provoked the North Vietnamese response. McNamara was almost certainly lying when he said, "Our Navy played absolutely no part in, was not associated with, or was not aware of any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any."

Later that day, McNamara was again less than truthful when he denied knowledge of the OPLAN 34A attacks at a Pentagon news conference. When asked by a reporter if he knew of any attacks by boats from the South, he responded, "No, none that I know of. They operate on their own. They are part of the South Vietnamese Navy operating in the coastal waters inspecting suspicious incoming junks, seeking to deter and prevent infiltration of both men and materiel."

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed on August 7, 1964, by a vote of 416 to 0 in the House of Representatives and 88 to 2 in the Senate. This resolution allowed the president to take any necessary measures to protect American interests in Vietnam, essentially giving him a blank check to escalate the war. The resolution was based on the false premise that North Vietnamese forces had attacked American ships unprovoked in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, 1964. This false incident, which has become known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, was used as a pretext for the escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam War.

In the years that followed, the Vietnam War would become one of history’s most divisive and controversial conflicts.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident is a prime example of a government false flag event. The US government created a fake story as an excuse to enter a war they were intent on waging. They lied to their people and started a war that killed millions of innocent people, seemingly for their own territorial or financial gain. It is also a good case for not always believing the history you have been taught and for looking critically and analytically at many such key events in history, because at the end of the day, if our governments are willing to lie to us about Vietnam, about Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or Syria, what else are they willing to lie about?

The Legacy of the Vietnam War

Military and Civilian Casualties:

During the period from August 1964 to April 1975, there were approximately 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong military personnel killed during the conflict, while the United States and its allies suffered around 58,200 military fatalities. Additionally, it is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed during the war.

The civilian toll was even more horrific. It is estimated that between 1955 and 1975, 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed, while another 3 million were wounded. In addition, around 58,000 civilians were killed in Laos and Cambodia during the war. The United States also had several allies who supported its efforts in the conflict. The primary allies of the US during the war were South Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines.

The casualties for each of these countries are as follows:

South Vietnam: It is estimated that between 1955 and 1975, approximately 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed during the war.

Australia: Australia deployed over 60,000 troops to Vietnam between 1962 and 1972. During this time, 521 Australian soldiers were killed, and more than 3,000 were wounded.

New Zealand: New Zealand deployed around 3,500 troops to Vietnam between 1964 and 1972. During this time, 37 New Zealand soldiers were killed and 187 were wounded.

South Korea: South Korea deployed over 320,000 troops to Vietnam between 1964 and 1973. During this time, 5,099 South Korean soldiers were killed, and more than 10,000 were wounded.

Thailand: Thailand deployed over 11,000 troops to Vietnam between 1965 and 1972. During this time, 351 Thai soldiers were killed, and more than 1,300 were wounded.

The Philippines: The Philippines deployed around 2,000 troops to Vietnam between 1966 and 1970. During this time, 9 Filipino soldiers were killed, and more than 60 were wounded.

Financial Costs:

The financial cost of the Vietnam War was significant for both sides. The United States spent an estimated $168 billion on the war effort, which equates to around $1 trillion in today's currency. This cost had a significant impact on the US economy, and many argue that it contributed to the economic downturn of the 1970s.

North Vietnam also experienced significant economic costs, with estimates suggesting that the country spent around $3.4 billion on the war effort. The cost of the conflict had a significant impact on the country's infrastructure and development, and it took many decades for the country to recover. The war in Vietnam was a tragedy of epic proportions. Countless lives were lost, and the cost of the conflict was immeasurable. All for what? A pointless, senseless war that accomplished nothing but death and destruction.

The men and women who fought in this war on the US side were of course heroes, but their bravery was unfortunately often in vain. They were sent to fight a war they didn't understand, against an enemy they couldn't see, and for a cause that was never clear.

The cost of the war was staggering. Billions of dollars were spent on bombs, bullets, and planes, lives were destroyed, families were torn apart, and communities were left in ruins. And for what? The answer is nothing. There was no victory, no clear objective, no justification for the pain and suffering endured by so many. The war in Vietnam was a senseless waste of human life and resources. A tragedy that still haunts us to this day.

From the North Vietnamese perspective, the war was not pointless, but rather a necessary struggle for the survival of their country. They saw the conflict as a continuation of their long struggle against foreign domination and aggression, and as an opportunity to unite their people behind a common cause. The North Vietnamese soldiers also fought with courage and determination, despite being outmatched in terms of weapons and technology.

The cost of the war for the North Vietnamese was immense, but they believed it was a price worth paying for the cause of national liberation. They saw the war as a defining moment in their history, a struggle that would ultimately lead to victory and the reunification of their country.

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