What Really Happened in Vietnam

The North, the South, and the American Defeat

This past Memorial Day, U.S. President Barack Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War with a speech at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "Even now, historians cannot agree on precisely when the war began," he said. "But if any year . . . illustrated the changing nature of our involvement, it was 1962." It's a debatable choice. The United States was already deeply involved in combating the Communist-led insurgency in South Vietnam in the late 1950s and before that had supplied and bankrolled France's losing effort against Ho Chi Minh's revolutionary forces. Historians usually date the start of the Second Indochina War -- what the Vietnamese refer to as "the American War" -- to 1959 or 1960. 

Still, there is no question that Washington's military commitment deepened appreciably in 1962, as vast quantities of U.S. weapons, jet fighters, helicopters, and armored personnel carriers arrived in South Vietnam, along with thousands of additional military advisers. That year, the Pentagon set up a full field command called the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), and put a three-star general, Paul Harkins, in charge.

Journalists on the scene understood what was happening. "The United States is involved in a war in Vietnam," began a front-page New York Times article in February by the venerable military correspondent Homer Bigart, who noted Washington's "passionate and inflexible" support for South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and speculated that the United States "seems inextricably committed to a long, inconclusive war." He quoted U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who on a visit to Saigon that month vowed that his country would stand by Diem "until we win." 

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis