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So, Who Started It?

On March 8th 1965, the first American combat troops landed on a beach outside of Danang. It was only the most prominent of a thousand tiny steps that had been leading American soldiers closer to full involvement.

My first exposure to the Vietnam War was the films that unpicked the American soldiers' experience. The subject became a sub-genre of its own in the 1980's, as a generation of film-makers each released their own depiction.

These films were mostly tales of individual heroism, apathy and despair, set against an implacable, unseen enemy. Political context was of no interest to their target market: teenage viewers like me.

Of the mainstream films, I can recall only Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now mentioning the French presence in Vietnam. Those scenes didn't even make the 1979 cut, and were only included in the Redux version more than twenty years later.

By 1965, war had been raging for years. The Marines arrived to protect the airbase at Danang, where American planes were flying regular bombing missions over North and South Vietnam. So, obviously, these troops were not the first U.S. feet on the ground.

Thousands of service personnel were already in the country, including signal detachments, airmen, engineers and thousands of U.S. soldiers advising the South Vietnamese Army.

I can think of two examples of when the start of a war was one single incident: Helen of Troy's elopement, and when Groucho Marx slapped the Ambassador of Sylvania in Duck Soup. Agamemnon and Rufus T. Firefly aside, the start of a war is never simple.

Attempting to summarize the beginning of a conflict as complex as the Vietnam War in one blog post is clearly a fool's undertaking. So here goes:

March 1965

President Johnson approves the introduction of 3500 U.S. Marines.

(Troop numbers would peak at over 540,000 just four years later.)

Nov '64 & Feb '65

The Viet Cong mount two deadly, high profile attacks on an airfield and a U.S. advisers' barracks.

March 1962

South Vietnam's President Diem agrees to a large increase in the U.S. advisory program and air support.

Sept 1961

A 1500 strong VC battalion besiege a province capital sixty miles from Saigon.

July 1961

Clandestine U.S. involvement is revealed when Hanoi capture members of an espionage unit operating in North Vietnam.


North Vietnam begins active support of the southern insurgency, fighting the U.S. sponsored South Vietnamese government.


South Vietnam's President Diem refuses to allow elections that would re-unify the country - as planned for under the Geneva Accords of 1954 that officially ended the French Indochinese War and created the temporary division of the country.


Diem's government is given no voice at the Geneva conference, while almost a million North Vietnamese refugees flee south to escape the new Communist government.


Thousands of peasants are executed during the Communist land reform campaign.


With no other international support against the return of the French following Japanese occupation, the [Communist led] Viet Minh insurgency turn to the Chinese Communists for military training and sanctuary.


The Communists emerge from World War Two with the most cohesive intelligence network and successfully co-opt or assassinate their Vietnamese Nationalist rivals.


Ho Chi Minh visits France seeking political autonomy for his occupied country. The only political group that argues for the liberation of colonial peoples is the Communist Party.


France completes its occupation of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, which become French Indochina.

Picture a 24hr news channel style ticker running these points along the bottom of the screen throughout Platoon. Oliver Stone may have inspired one or two popcorn and ammo addled teens to pick up a history book.

Could I have taken more a valuable lesson than, war is hell, from those 1980's movies? Could any of those films have answered the question, who started it?

There is no clean answer. Was it French Colonialism? International Communism? The Vietnamese? All of the above and more.

When I asked Tung this question he was emphatic: “We defeated ourselves.”

In 1965 the political situation in Vietnam was a mess! After President Diem had been killed by a group of generals in 1963, there were nine leadership changes in just four years. Western style democracy was always going to be a tough fit for the Vietnamese who'd never voted before. So you could blame the American's for that.

But even I, as a Brit, have nothing to feel smug about. It was an English commander who rearmed the French soldiers in Saigon in 1945 and ignored the Vietnamese delegations.

That same month, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Dewey, an American intelligence officer, became the first American casualty in Vietnam. Probably shot by mistake, he was killed by Communist soldiers who were fighting the French.

At what point could the escalation have been checked and war averted? When I got into the detail during my research it looked like an unstoppable force striking an immovable object.

Aggression was matched by aggression. Escalation by escalation.

Most of the decisions to increase American commitment in Vietnam were totally logical in their context. No one sets out to lose 50,000 troops in a country on the other side of the world. But the warning signs were there.

One was Peter Dewey's last report, warning that the U.S. “ought to clear out of Southeast Asia”. That was in 1945.

So while March 8th 1965 is the date that gets talked about, that is not when the war actually began, particularly for the Vietnamese.

Indeed, President Johnson did not even make a declaration of war. In August '64, his government had passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed him to use armed force in the defense of any SEATO member who requested assistance in defense of their freedom.

SEATO [The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization] was designed by John Foster Dulles, U.S. Secretary of State, around the time of the Geneva accords – which he refused to sign - to provide moral justification for any future U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia.

A few days before March 8th, Vietnamese leaders were asked to request U.S. military support under the terms of that treaty. Given no choice, General Thieu asked that the Marines “be brought ashore in the most inconspicuous way feasible.”

They were welcomed by newsmen and flower girls who draped garlands around the necks of soldiers as they trudged up the beach. Some of advisors already there held up a sign reading, “Welcome Gallant Marines”.

Most American's still didn't know what they were getting into. The French did, but no one was listening to them.

Next week's post will focus on the impact and exit of the French from Vietnam, and this writer's harrowing ordeal when his sensitive gag reflex was struck by Vietnamese cuisine.

Turns out my stomach is an immovable object.

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