“You never knew who was the enemy and who was the friends,” said a marine officer who took part in a conflict deemed the longest war in Unites States history (My). The Vietnam War was not only the longest war in US history, as it took place from 1959 to 1975, but it is also considered one of the most controversial conflicts to date. This war, also known as the second Indochina War, occurred in the countries of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
It was fought between communist North Vietnam, supported by its allies, and South Vietnam, backed by the United States and the other members of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, who wanted to contain the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. Although the struggle originally was between France and Vietnam, the United Stated entered the war because it wanted to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam in order to enforce containment; and more so, to ensure support from France in the Cold war. By the end of the war, about 58,000 Vietnamese people were killed, many of which were citizens.
Undoubtedly, the US received heavy criticism for its cruel mistreatment of the Vietnamese citizens in the war, but there is much information that has been overlooked. For example, the U. S forces in Vietnam only resorted to killing innocent citizens because of the guerilla warfare that the Vietcong used, in which they dressed and acted as normal citizens. Second, the US was condemned for enacting programs that forced Vietnamese citizens out of their villages, often destroying their homes in the process.
However, this was merely to isolate rural peasants from contact with the National Liberation Front, so that the peasants would not be influenced by their communist ideals. Finally, American commanders clearly sectioned off areas as “free-fire zones,” in which soldiers were directed to shoot at anything that entered this territory (Free). Vietnamese citizens were made aware of these zones, therefore, any civilian deaths attributed to this area were due to oblivious citizens, and America had justification for its actions.
Thus, the United State’s treatment of Vietnamese civilians, though appearing harsh, was merely a tactic of defense against the guerilla warfare used by the Vietcong, and was used as a means to halt the spread of communism. These two factors, coupled with the fact that the US clearly enacted free-fire zones, show that its treatment of Vietnamese citizens was completely justified in the context of the war. To start off, during the Vietnam War, American troops experienced a new style of warfare, called guerilla warfare. This provoked the US to employ a different type of strategy in order to combat this new style of fighting.
The United State’s main struggle was against the National Liberation Front, a communist rebel group located in South Vietnam, who was trying to weaken the South Vietnamese government in order to unite Vietnam as one communist country. NLF guerilla fighters were known as the Vietcong, and their tactics of warfare consisted of hiding in thick forests and performing surprise attacks, like ambushes and night raids (Vietnam Spartacus). One of the major problems that American troops faced was distinguishing NLF members apart from average Vietnamese citizens because “they all dressed alike and looked alike” (Vietnam Spartacus).
Thus, it is easy to see how the US Army could have easily mistaken innocent Vietnamese civilians for the enemy. The Vietcong even implemented the strategy of befriending the peasant villagers and giving them land, and in return “the peasants agreed to help the NLF by feeding and housing them” (Vietnam Spartacus). In some instances, the peasants even agreed to take up arms with the pro communist soldiers and fight against the American troops. In this case, the US soldiers were completely justified in the killing of Vietnamese civilians because they were engaged in combat just as the Vietcong were.
Another strategy that America resorted to using as a tactic against guerilla warfare was known as “Operation Ranch Hand”. This involved the spraying of chemicals from the air in an attempt to destroy the NLF’s hiding places in the dense jungles of Southern Vietnam, as well as an attempt to ruin crops and deny the troops of food. Unfortunately, “Agent Orange,” the chemical used in the defoliation process, not only destroyed the coverage of the Vietcong, but also adversely impacted the ordinary people who ingested these harmful toxins (Vietnam Spartacus).
However, this seemingly cruel behavior was a reasonable act on behalf of the US troops, because this was the deceptive nature of guerilla warfare that the Vietcong insisted on using. Another reason why the US treatment of Vietnamese citizens was justified in the context of the war was because many of America’s actions towards the civilians were merely a means of enforcing the policy of containment, in order to benefit the citizens of Vietnam. One of the main reasons that the Unites States even got involved in the Vietnam War was to prevent a communist takeover of Vietnam and all of Southeast Asia for that matter.
This theory, known as the domino theory, presented the idea that if Vietnam fell to communism, it would be more likely that other nations around it would join the “communist bloc,” which would soon spread throughout the world (Wars). The main attempt to stop this communist insurgency was to isolate the civilians from contact with the NLF. In order to do so, the US advisors to the Diem regime implemented the Strategic Hamlet Program, as well as the Community Development Program, both of which aimed at “separating the Vietnamese peasants form communist influence by creating fortified villages” (Wars).
The peasants responded with a strong backlash because they did not appreciate being forced out of their homes, which were purposefully located near their ancestors’ burial grounds, nor did they acquiesce to being confined to cramped living conditions in these reserved areas (Vietnam Digital). The Vietnamese civilians may not have realized the good intentions behind these programs, and instead mistaken them for cruelty. However, the actions of the US were quite justifiable, despite the seemingly poor treatment of the Vietnamese citizens, because these actions were merely a tactic to stop communism from spreading any further.
In a speech given by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, he stated, “we (America) want nothing to ourselves only that the people of South Viet-Nam be allowed to guide their own country in their own way” (Wars). This clearly shows that the US was not being cruel in its treatment of the Vietnamese citizens, but was actually trying to block the communist influence from the NLF and ensure independence for South Vietnam. Finally, the last reason why America’s treatment of the Vietnamese civilians was defensible was because they clearly enacted “free-fire zones” during the Vietnam War.
These zones were areas in which “civilians had been warned to leave their homes and anyone who remained was regarded as allied with the enemy” (Isserman 90). Whole sections of South Vietnam, like the Iron Triangle, were declared free-fire zones where the US forces were “authorized to shoot at anything that moved, since the area was thought to be controlled by communists” (Free). This strategy was thought to prevent the Vietcong from returning to areas and resuming operations in areas that they previously had occupied (Isserman 90). One can see how this concept was rather logical in context of the Vietnam War.
Those who valued their lives fled these free-fire zones, and this contributed to the goal that the United States Army was trying to achieve. They believed that it would be more difficult for the Vietcong to function in a depopulated city, because “without constant and active support of the peasants…failure was inevitable” (Isserman 91). In the end, this held to be true. Many peasants who refused to leave these designated areas were killed, however the United States had justification for these killings. For example, International law states that “a village known to be communist could be attacked only if it inhabitants were warned in advance”.
Therefore, American soldiers “presumed that after the Vietnamese civilians were warned to vacate the zones, anyone still present was considered a legitimate target, and could lawfully be attacked” (Free). The Unites States abided by this law because they dropped leaflets and used other approaches to admonish the peasants that their villages would soon become free-fire zones. Thus, if US troops killed any innocent victims, it was out of the civilians’ ignorance, and the Unites States was completely justified in its actions.
The Vietnam War will always remain a heavily debatable issue, as even today, nearly 50 years later, some people question America’s reasoning for entering the war. Many critics believe that the United States had no place in this long and gruesome struggle as the conflict was primarily between France and Vietnam, and later between the communist and non communist groups within the country. As one might also point out, the United States did not even believe in colonization, and therefore sacrificed many American and Vietnamese deaths to participate in this struggle that America did not fully support.
What many do not realize is that in the grand scheme of things, the US intervened in the Vietnam War as part of their larger goal to prevent a communist revolution that “would threaten the USA itself” (Vietnam, Spartacus). Thus, all of America’s actions, including the treatment of Vietnamese citizens, were out of self-defense, and are therefore justified. However, perhaps the most controversial issue pertaining to the Vietnam War was the concept of inhumane behavior. It cannot be denied that the US troops raped, killed, and poisoned thousands of innocent Vietnamese civilians, as the My Lai Massacre s the best representation of this. However, this anomalous event is a “notorious example of the frustration American troops felt fighting a mostly invisible enemy” (Isserman 90). The unfortunate way the Vietcong conducted the war led to what may be perceived as innocent civilian deaths, but given the option to kill or be killed, the American soldiers had very little choice. While the actions of the US may not have always been morally correct, there is much support that can back its reasoning behind its actions.
In conclusion, the Unites States was completely justified in its treatment of the Vietnamese civilians because in a war “with no clear front, and an enemy which could be anywhere” it is easy to mistakenly kill peasants, especially when the guerilla fighters commonly dressed and acted like civilians (Vietnam, Spartacus). America often had no choice but to kill innocent victims because with the confusion of guerilla warfare “the lines between legitimate and illegitimate killing is blurred” (Vietnam, Spartacus).
The US was merely forced to kill these innocent people as a means of defense. Also, the American troops may have not treated the Vietnamese citizens as best as they could while relocating them to “strategic hamlets,” but this was actually for their own good, in that the United States wanted to protect the peasants from becoming a slave to communism. In this way, the treatment of Vietnamese citizens, in context of events such as Community Development Program, was to benefit them, and not out of the America’s selfish cruelty.
Lastly, the Unites States was lawfully correct in its killings of civilians because the troops supplied various warnings, in advance, of the zones that would receive heavy attack. Thus, the United State’s treatment of Vietnamese civilians, though harsh, was merely a tactic of defense against the guerilla warfare, used as a means to halt communism, and legally correct because of the enactment of free-fire zones. Therefore, the Unites States was clearly justified in the treatment of the Vietnamese Citizens in the context of the war.
Work Cited Page
“Free Fire Zones.” Crimesofwar.org. 22 March 2009
Isserman, Maurice. Vietnam War. New York City: Facts On File Inc, 2003. “The My Lai Massacre.” 25 March 2005. PBS.org 22 March 2009
“Vietnam War.” 22 March 2009 DigitalHistory.uh.edu. 22 March 2009
“The Vietnam War.” SpartacusEducational.net 12 March 2009
“The Wars for Viet Nam: 1945-75.” Vietnam.vassar.edu. 12 March 2009