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Vietnam War

The Vietnam War, a major event in history, started with France colonizing Southeast Asia in the late 1800s. The conflict escalated with the rise of the Viet Minh liberation movement, led by Ho Chi Minh. The war intensified with the U.S. involvement due to their anti-communist stance. The war ended with North Vietnam's victory in 1975. Created by Sal Khan.

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Video transcript

In order to have a respectable understanding of the Vietnam War, we have to rewind all the way back to the late 1800s when France was colonizing Southeast Asia. And in particular, it colonized what is now Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia-- and they were collectively called French Indochina. You can see Cambodia here, Vietnam along the coast, and then, Laos, right over here. And France stayed the colonizing power-- I have a little gap in my timeline here-- and they stayed a colonizing power all the way through World War II. And so you can imagine, during World War II, France was quickly overrun by the Germans. The Vietnamese wanted their independence, and so you have a liberation movement that rises up. And it was led by the Viet Minh, and the Viet Minh were led by Ho Chi Minh. This right here is a picture of Ho Chi Minh. And besides being a liberation movement, they were also communist, which, you could imagine, later on during the Cold War will kind of bias the United States against them. But you fast forward through World War II. Eventually, the Japanese take control over Indochina, over Vietnam. But by the time '45 rolls around, or at least the end of '45-- and we know that the United States defeats Japan-- now, all of a sudden, the Viet Minh are able to declare a somewhat temporary independence. And it's temporary because shortly after that-- and the region is occupied temporarily by the Chinese in the north, and the British in the south, who were part of the Allied forces against the Axis. But eventually, you have the French coming back, and they want to reassert their control over their former colony. And you have this war that develops-- the First Indochina War between the French and the people sympathetic to the French-- the Vietnamese who were loyal to the French-- and the North. And the French-- just to make it clear how it sets up, at the end of World War II when you had the temporary occupiers, the British and the Chinese, the Chinese, obviously, had more influence in the North. The British had more influence in the South. When the French come back they, essentially, are able to reinstate control over the South. So right when the Indochina War is beginning, the French already have more control over the South. And actually, historically the French had more influence in the South, as well. During French colonial rule it was really the southern third of Vietnam where you had a lot of French influence. And this is a current map, and the current map does not have this orange boundary over here that we'll talk about in a second. Vietnam is now unified. But before the Vietnam War, this was not Ho Chi Minh City, this was Saigon. And Saigon was kind of where most of the French control was centered. But you fast forward to 1954, this ends up in a bit of a stalemate. And so you have the Geneva Conference of 1954 that partitions Vietnam along the 17th parallel between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. And the whole point of this partition was, really, to just allow for a cooling off period, a period where you can have thing settling down, and then having elections. It wasn't meant to be a permanent partition. But there was a 300-day period where people could move across the partition. And during that partition, you actually had 900,000 people, mainly Catholics, move from the North to South. You also had several hundred thousand people moving from the South to the North, so it wasn't a one-way movement. But net net, most of the movements by Roman Catholic Vietnamese was from the North to the south. You fast forward a little bit, you eventually have-- and I'm sure I'm butchering the pronunciation here-- Ngo Dinh Diem take control. He starts off as prime minister in '54, eventually he takes control, and becomes president in '55. This is him right here. He takes control of South Vietnam, and this guy is not a big fan of things like elections, or non-corrupt government, and all the rest. And he takes control of South Vietnam. But you could imagine that the United States is positively inclined to him. One, he dresses in nice Western suits and all of that, and had nicely combed hair. But he was also anti-communist. And at this time period, the United States is starting to think in terms of the Cold War. And in terms of, how do we stop communism? How do we contain it? This whole theory of containment-- that the best way to stop the Soviet Union is to just make sure that communism can not spread. That it gets contained. We have the domino theory in the United States that if one country falls to communism in a region, that the rest of the countries will eventually fall. And that is not good for containment. So we did not want South Vietnam to fall. We essentially start supporting these characters over here. And even from the early '50s, the United States starts supporting the anti-communist. And at first, this support, it's in the-- I guess we should say-- the guise of advisers. But these advisers-- one, we start sending more and more aid, and more and more advisers. And these advisers started getting more and more involved in the actual conflict. And so after this partition, you can imagine, that you still have an ongoing conflict between the North and the South. And on top of that, you have actors who are sympathetic to the North, sympathetic to the Viet Minh, sympathetic to Ho Chi Minh, in the South. Some of them were in the North, they come back to the South. Some of them were just in the South. And they did not like the Diem government. Besides just being sympathetic to Ho Chi Minh, Diem was a fairly corrupt autocratic ruler, who wasn't a big fan of democracy. And so these players in the South who started to rise up against President Diem or the Viet Cong. And so this really sets up what the Vietnam War is all about. You have the communist Ho Chi Minh-controlled North that was fighting a conventional war against the South. You have this partition on the 17th parallel. And on top of that, you have an unconventional fighting force-- I guess you'd call them guerrillas-- in the South of Vietnam called the Viet Cong. So it was, kind of, a double-- There were two things that the South had to fight against-- the North officially, and also this insurrection that was occurring within the South. And so the whole time the United States did not want this insurrection to succeed-- they did not want all of Vietnam to become communist. We keep sending more and more advisers. It actually started even before Kennedy, but Kennedy he starts sending-- he escalates the number of advisers that gets sent. It's still not, at this point, it's still not a formal war. We haven't officially declared-- where we don't have, officially, soldiers in battle. You fast forward to 1963, besides all of the great characteristics of Diem that I already mentioned, he also was into persecuting Buddhists. So to make matters worse, not only was he corrupt, not only did he not like elections, but he liked persecuting his own people. And by 1963, this kind of got out of hand, his level of persecution of the Buddhists. He started toward storming temples, and all the rest. And so he was assassinated. And not only was he assassinated, it kind of leaves this power vacuum, and you have all these people jockeying for control, none of these really especially savory characters inside the South. These two guys eventually come to power, Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu. Wait a few years, Nguyen Van Thieu is able to get this guy out of the picture. And then by 1967-- I don't have it over here-- you have Thieu has now taken control. But during that period-- or actually, before Ky and Thieu take power-- in 1964, you have one of the shadiest incidents in American history. As you can imagine, we, in our function as advisors, we had sent ships into the Gulf of Tonkin, right off of the coast of North Vietnam. So the original story goes-- and this is a very suspect original story-- in 1964, the US Maddox-- and this is the original story-- claimed to that it was attacked, or it was claimed that the US Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats, and that there was a little skirmish-- there was an exchange of fire. And it was also claimed that a few days later another boat in the Gulf of Tonkin, another US vessel, was attacked by a North Vietnamese boat. That was the original story. This angered Congress, this angered the American people. How dare they attack ships that are sitting off of the coast, warships that are sitting off the coast. And so this kind of gave the emotional fuel to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. So these incidents, or these purported incidents-- this, kind of, attack on the USS Maddox, and this other thing that might have happened-- these were called the Gulf of Tonkin Incidents. This angered Congress, angered the American people, so we passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and what's relevant about it is that it gave LBJ, here, it gave him the authority to officially engage in a war in Vietnam, to officially escalate it to an actual war that the US was involved in. And this whole time I've been saying it's shady, because it's now been shown that one, the Gulf of Tonkin-- well it's not clear that really anything happened. There might have been some firing from the USS Maddox. They might have actually engaged the North Vietnamese patrol boats. The other possibility that might have happened is that nothing happened. But any way you look at it, it's now been fairly established that it was not a real incident. It was not really North Vietnam attacking the United States. But it was relevant because it really escalated the war. So now you have Johnson-- did I say North Korea originally? I apologize for that. We're talking about North Vietnam. I don't remember what my brain actually said. Of course, North Vietnam. But it gave Johnson the power to escalate the war. And so his administration is really the heart of the Vietnam War, when the war was really escalated. We eventually get to 500,000 US troops. But the whole time this is happening, you can imagine, Johnson and the American military leaders in Vietnam are telling the American people, oh, we're fighting communism. We're about to win. This is a noble war. And you fast forward, and especially, the part about to win-- you fast forward to 1968, and all of a sudden you have the Viet Cong, who the American leaders have told the American people and the Congress, that they're about to be defeated, and then in 1968, the Viet Cong orchestrate the Tet Offensive, which is this massive coordinated attack on a bunch of targets throughout South Vietnam. And so even though it was wasn't completely successful militarily, the intent of the Tet Offensive was to completely turn the tides in the war. It made the American people and the Congress rightfully suspicious. You, Mr. Johnson, you had told us that we were about to win the war, and the Viet Cong were almost defeated, and all of a sudden, they orchestrate this sophisticated attack on us. It rightfully made the American public suspicious. On top of that, and this probably made matters a lot worse, the My Lai Massacre comes out. And in every war there are massacres, but the United States, at least believes, that its soldiers can kind of take the high road. They don't engage in these type of things. But the My Lai Massacre showed that, really, no soldiers are immune to massacres. And this is really a disgusting massacre, and it was documented. And if you really want to be disturbed, do a Google search for images of the My Lai Massacre. It will ruin your weekend. It'll depress you. It's US soldiers killing a village of innocent women and children. There's pictures of dead babies. It's horrible, and to make matters worse-- or even, add insult to injury-- the soldiers who committed it-- there was actually a few who tried to defend the villagers and when they came back, they were treated almost like traitors. But the soldiers who actually did the attack, only one of them got jail time and it was only a couple years of jail time, and this was for massacring a village of women and children. So already, you had the Tet Offensive. It makes the American public suspicious of whether we can even win this war. Then you have the My Lai Massacre, which just disgusts the public, and makes people realize that we're involved in a war that it's not even clear who are the good guys anymore, not even clear what the real goals are. Make matters worse, you fast forward to 1971. The Pentagon Papers get leaked to the New York Times. And these pretty much articulate-- it's a classified document that articulates that the leadership, the military and non-military leadership of the Vietnam War, was, to some degree, lying to Congress and the American people. It was lying about how the war was going. It was lying about what activities it was doing. It did not tell the American people and Congress that it was actually engaged in war in Laos and Cambodia. And a lot of the reason why we were engaged in Laos and Cambodia is because that's where the supply routes were between the North and the South-- they ran through Laos and Cambodia. And the most famous of them, and you might have heard of it, is the Ho Chi Minh trail. And it wasn't just one trail, it was actually a network of trails. And so a lot of the activity that was going on in Laos and Cambodia was, kind of, carpet bombing of what the US thought were some of these supply routes. And we never really got a good-- well, that's a whole other debate. But it wasn't just one trail the was easily bombed. It was all of these little foot paths and all of these other things, where arms were able to be transported from the North to the South. But the Pentagon Papers, rightfully, made the American people even more suspicious. And then now we're entering into Nixon's administration, and he was still doing the carpet bombing, still atrocities going on, but he, his whole goal was to kind of wind down the war, bring the troops out on a timetable without, kind of, an unofficial defeat. So you fast forward to 1973, you have the Paris Peace Accords, where officially there is peace between the North, the South, the North, and the Americans. You can imagine it from the North's point of view, they're like, sure, we'll sign some peace accords. It'll just make the Americans go away, once the Americans go away they won't be able to come back, since this was such a hugely unpopular war. It was such a waste for America on so many dimensions. Especially, America's prestige as a global actor. We'll just wait for them to leave, and then we can overrun the South after that. And that's essentially what happens. In 1975, the North just overruns the South, and then later that year, you have Saigon falling to the North. And then it becomes Ho Chi Minh City. And just this whole period, you have President Thieu is in power, and just to show where his priorities are-- near the end, right when the North is falling to South Vietnam-- and you can kind of see the writing on the wall-- he gives a speech to the Vietnamese people saying that he'll never desert them. But then when it becomes pretty clear that Saigon is going to fall to the North Vietnamese, he gets on a big US transport plane with, literally, 15 tons of luggage. I'll let you think about how much luggage that is. And $15 million worth of gold, and this is $15 million worth of gold in 1975. So you can imagine how much he really cared about the Vietnamese people. And he eventually ends up settling in Massachusetts. And he died there about 10 years ago. So you could imagine, this was an ugly incident for the world. A super ugly incident for the Vietnamese people. A super ugly chapter in American history. It was the first war that one, America lost, but more, it hurts prestige, it hurts America's ability to influence what was going on in other parts of the world. You had the containment theory, that we have to stop communism from spreading. And the domino theory, that if one country would fall to communism then the other ones were. That didn't happen. The South did fall, but we didn't have the rest of Southeast Asia falling to communism. So it kind of disproved the domino theory, especially because after the Vietnam War the United States would not be able to enter another war like it for some time, because the American people wouldn't let it happen. So to some degree, it would have been easier for communism to spread, because people would have known that the US couldn't engage it. But despite that, the domino theory didn't happen. But it was just all-around ugly. I mean, besides the massacres, and the raping, and the pillaging of innocence that happened on, really, on all sides of this, you have 1 to 3 million Vietnamese-- and no one will really know the actual count-- but that's a huge number. 1 to 3 million Vietnamese were killed. You have 58,000 American troops being killed. And you have hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and Laotions who are never really formally involved in the war, they were killed. Especially, due to a lot of this carpet bombing campaign. So these are just atrocious numbers, and really one of the worst and ugliest chapters in US history.