Cold War: How and why America got into Vietnam Return to the gallery menu
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Why did the USA find it so hard to get out of Vietnam?

In a way, the answer to this question is simple. A major reason was that the USA and its South Vietnam ally were not able to beat their enemy. However, there were other factors as well.

The Vietnam War
When US President Johnson sent troops to Vietnam in 1965, he did not expect Vietnam to turn into a long drawn out conflict. But it did.

  • US military power was awesome. It held back the Viet Cong and their allies in North Vietnam. But it could not defeat them. For American soldiers the war became a nightmare. They were up against formidable enemies. The Viet Cong used hit and run tactics, hid in underground bunkers and knew the countryside extremely well. They had the support of many of the ordinary peasants. They were helped by the North Vietnam Army. North Vietnam received enormous aid from Communist China and the USSR.
  • The war killed and ruined the lives of millions of civilians in South and North Vietnam. This was especially true of bombing and the use of chemical weapons.
  • The USA's international reputation was badly damaged, because of its tactics and because it was unable to win.
  • The US economy was badly damaged by the war.
  • Media coverage of the war turned people in the USA against it. The younger generation in the US were especially hostile.
Getting out
America was looking for a way out of Vietnam almost as soon as it got in. Behind the scenes there were talks going on between the USA and North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. All too often they resulted in stalemate. The US would not talk until the Viet Cong withdrew from South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would not talk unless America stopped bombing North Vietnam.

* Source 7 Source 8 Source 4 Source 3 Source 5 Source 2 Source 6 Source 1

The political and military stalemate continued until 1972, but there were changes in US policy during that time. In 1968 Richard Nixon became President. He was anxious to get out of Vietnam and developed the policy of Vietnamisation. This meant building up and supporting South Vietnam forces to resist the Viet Cong. By 1973 US forces had virtually pulled out of Vietnam. However, without the USA the South Vietnam state was not able to hold back the Viet Cong and North Vietnam.

In 1975 North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam. America had to intervene or accept that Vietnam would fall to Communism. America chose to accept the fall of Vietnam. Not surprisingly, the USA has been extremely cautious ever since about sending forces into any of the world's trouble spots.

Your Task
Your task is to decide why US policy went so badly wrong and why it took so long to get out of Vietnam. Use the sources in this Case Study to examine:

  • Military factors eg US and South Vietnamese forces and tactics; Viet Cong tactics and forces
  • Political factors eg the difficulty of arranging talks; stubbornness on each side

The worksheet will help you to organise your work.